President Clinton offered a private pep talk to about 40 of the Democratic Party’s most generous givers Wednesday night in an attempt to rustle up $250,000 from each of them to help retire the party’s record $16 million debt.
The controversy over illegal contributions during the 1996 campaign has plunged the Democratic National Committee into a full-blown financial crisis and left many potential donors hesitant to pull out their checkbooks.
Attempting to change its fortunes well in advance of the 1998 congressional elections, the DNC turned to its main attractions - Clinton and Vice President Al Gore - to energize the party faithful.
“I believe you helped to contribute to a profound, almost revolutionary positive change in the direction of our country,” Clinton said in brief opening remarks to the deep-pocketed crowd.
But his direct pitch for cash took place behind closed doors after reporters had been herded out of a ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel, where grilled beef and salmon were on the menu.
The appeal put Clinton in an awkward spot, coming just a week after he had called on the Federal Election Commission to ban the very “soft money” contributions to political parties that he was soliciting.
Already, the DNC has returned about $1.5 million in questionable contributions, and it intends to send back another $1.5 million in the coming weeks. To make matters worse, the party is racking up major legal bills responding to three separate fund-raising investigations - by the House, Senate and the Justice Department.
Outside the Mayflower, a group of protesters denounced Clinton and Gore as “hypocrites” who talk a good game about reforming the campaign finance system at the same time they raise money with gusto.
“If President Clinton put as much energy into campaign finance reform as raising soft money, we would be well on our way to a cleaned-up system,” said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, the public-interest group that organized the demonstration.
Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said that until the current campaign finance laws are changed, the Democrats must continue to raise soft money to stay competitive with Republicans, who have traditionally been more adept money raisers.