The New Cash Crop

“Before I talk about the Democratic Party, let me talk about this nation,” said Roy Romer, the governor of Colorado and general chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The name Monica Lewinsky had just hit the radar screen. Everyone was wondering whether the Democratic fund-raising machine was about to conk out for good. And Romer – on CNN at the time – pulled an obvious dodge. Meanwhile, off-camera, party stalwarts were in full crisis mode. “DNC people are beginning to look for jobs,” a fund-raiser at a liberal interest group said last Monday. “The party faithful right now are running for the hills.”

Monica Lewinsky couldn’t have come along at a more vulnerable time for the Democratic Party, which was already $30 million behind the Republicans in fund-raising for 1997. Last year alone, the DNC was socked with $5.2 million in legal bills stemming from investigations into the very methods it had used to raise money in the first place. But by the beginning of 1998, the financial picture was starting to brighten; they had actually reduced their total debt from $20 million to $9 million. There will be no more $100,000 sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom, that’s for sure, but at least the party could still count on its charismatic commander-in-chief, a man who could get the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio to pay $5,000 for the chance to eat chili in the Dakota. “The only person who’s been successful raising money in the Democratic Party is the president,” said a veteran fund-raiser. “And he’s out of the loop until this is resolved.”

It wasn’t long, however, before money fears were dispelled by an almost cultish outbreak of positive thinking, especially in New York City, which has the greatest concentration of deep-pocket Democrats outside the executive offices of DreamWorks SKG. By Tuesday, it seemed, donors were lining up to take one for the team. “We have a big campaign to run. It’s important that we beat Pataki and D’Amato, and if this means people are going to penalize the Democratic Party, then I think I’ll have to shoulder the burden,” said Melvyn Weiss, a lawyer who contributed $274,500 in the 1995-96 election cycle.

“Some damage has been done,” admitted Victor A. Kovner, who spearheaded Clinton’s New York campaign in 1996. “I work hard for the party, and I contribute within my means. My commitment to it is undiminished.” Howard Rubin, a market researcher who gave $126,000, said, “This may shake a different tier of supporters, but my guess is that people who have interacted with the president will have more faith. The high-level supporters will continue to be there.” (Except maybe for Walter Kaye, the now infamous New York insurance executive who gave $171,510 and arranged Monica Lewinsky’s White House internship.)

Even the rank-and-file seemed to be stepping up. According to Judith Hope, the aptly named head of the New York State Democratic Committee, telemarketing pledges soared from 32 percent to 52 percent. “My first reaction was one of great concern,” she said. “But it seems New Yorkers and Americans are rallying behind the president.”

By Wednesday, the day after the State of the Union address, Democrats were practically buoyant. “People are sick of how the president is being treated, and we will use it as a rallying cry,” said Terry McAuliffe, the chief fund-raiser for Clinton’s ‘96 re-election campaign. “I’ve talked to these donors, and they are ready to be activated. I’d say the conservative coalition has made a big tactical error.”

“I think they’re whistling past the graveyard there,” counters Terry O’Brien of the New York Republican State Committee. “We expect our fund-raising for the next year to reflect Clinton’s troubles.”

Whatever happens with the DNC, financial concerns might, counterintuitively, be an incentive for Clinton to hang on. Just before the Lewinsky scandal broke, his legal bills were $3 million and counting. And however hard it is for an embattled president to raise cash, doing it as a deposed president has got to be impossible.

The New Cash Crop