New York Senator and leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton caught a big break two weeks ago.
The Larry Craig incident in the men's room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport overshadowed the news of Clinton's connections to fugitive Norman Hsu and his $850,000 donation to her campaign.
Whether or not Craig tapped his foot while sitting in a stall in a public rest room is much less important to America than the pervasive use of dirty money in politics.
Unfortunately for Clinton, her good luck good luck has run out. The Clinton-Hsu soiled laundry is front-page news across America. Even though $850,000 has been returned to 260 donors, Clinton is inexorably tied to a common crook whose shady reputation threatens to undermine her presidential aspirations.
At first, Clinton dismissed the allegations of Hsu's contributions when her west coast fund raising manager called his donations "completely legit!" and refused to return any money.
According to the New York Times, Hsu emerged from his 1992 status as "a bankrupt swindler" to become a major money raising force for Clinton. Hsu is what is referred to as a "bundler"—an individual who acts as a conduit for donations from other individuals to send to Democratic candidates.
The vehicle Hsu used for his illegal transactions is his company, Components Ltd., which exists only on paper and has no business purpose whatsoever as far as anyone can determine. [A Fugitive Political Fund Raiser Leaves A Shadowy Money Trail, By Mike McIntire, New York Times, September 9, 2007]
Clinton's two main challengers would love to make political hay out of her with a hand in the cookie jar but are they are hardly in a position to do so. Barack Obama is rumored have benefited from his association with indicted Chicago real estate mogul Tony Rezko. [Obama Says He Regrets Deal With Fundraiser, by Peter Slevin, Washington Post, December 17, 2006].
And John Edwards, whose net worth estimated as high as $60 million, isn't anxious to draw attention to his questionable finances either.
The unwritten rule among the three is the less said about money the better.
Whoever emerges with the Republican nomination to challenge the Democratic nominee certainly isn't excluded from attacking. The problem is that they're tainted too and would be unlikely to withstand an extensive audit into how they made their fortunes.
The three leading Republicans, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney have a net worth respectively of $30 million, $38 million and $250 million.
Among them all, Clinton's scandal is most hurtful to her chances. Her husband and Bill, after all, invented the shameless idea of renting out the White House Lincoln Bedroom. And the image of greedy, stop-at-nothing politics follows her every step.
With nationwide unrest about the war in Iraq and broad-based dissatisfaction with President Bush, Democrats may feel that the 2008 election is in the bag. And, by all rights, it should be.
But Fairleigh Dickinson University professor of political science Peter Woolley sees it otherwise. He projects that by the time the lengthy nomination process is over, the winner will be: "bruised and vulnerable and the once-enthusiastic supporters of the losers will be disappointed and disenchanted." [Dissatisfaction Fuels Presidential Race, By Peter J. Woolley, Providence Journal, August 21, 2007]
My own take is the same. As simplistic as this sounds, to win the Democrats must put forward a candidate who can be elected. And right now, they don't have one. The Congressional approval rate is 18 percent. Clinton and Obama are members of that not-too-august body. By extension, they are losers.
Obama is inexperienced, Edwards lacks traction and Clinton has the highest negatives of the three. Observing Clinton during last week's Univision debate conducted in Spanish, she looked tired and older than her 60 years. The fallout from the Hsu affair has taken its toll.
What it boils down to is if the Democratic nominee doesn't stir the public and if another Republican presidency is deemed out of the question because of Bush's legacy, a third choice might surface.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Democrat turned Republican turned Independent, is waiting in the wings with his $1 billion campaign war chest.
Former Vice President Al Gore, his protestations aside, could make a late entry. A Quinnipiac Poll shows that he rates highly.
If the presidential vote is split among three candidates as it was in 1992 when H. Ross Perot won 20 percent of the popular vote, then absolutely anything is possible.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.