Hillary Clinton Is Getting Back in the Game, But Some Critics Would Prefer She Sit This One Out

Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty


It's not like Hillary Clinton to be idle. In fact, way back in what feels like ancient history when people weren't sure if she'd run for president in 2016, her nonstop drive was one of the factors that made members of her inner circle think she might throw her hat in the ring despite her statements to the contrary: Friends couldn't imagine her retiring. So it's been odd for Clinton-watchers on both sides of the aisle to see Hillary in retreat-wandering the woods of Chappaqua, New York, as the oft-flogged meme goes.

Without Hillary to kick around anymore, Republicans lost their favorite chew toy and have had to recalibrate to the fact that their own leader, President Donald Trump, is the biggest threat to their dominance. And the Democratic establishment has been rudderless, having lost every branch of government and the Clinton machine in one fell swoop last November.

The Democratic grassroots, however, has been thriving, from the Women's March, which drew nearly a half-million people to Washington, DC, and a reported 5 million people worldwide, to the airport protests when Trump's "Muslim ban" was announced, to the organization and reinvigoration of activist groups around the country. This activism has been powered largely by women-a recent poll found that women made 86 percent of the anti-Trump calls to Congress. According to people close to Clinton, it was this spirit of protest that roused her during an otherwise dispiriting time. "It was incredibly energizing to see the activism out there," says Clinton spokesperson Nick Merrill. "That's one of the things that inspired her most since November 8."

Yesterday afternoon, Clinton officially ended her time in the wilderness, announcing the launch of Onward Together, her new 501-c4 and related political action committee. In an email to supporters she described the group as "an organization dedicated to advancing the progressive vision that earned nearly 66 million votes in the last election…by supporting groups that encourage people to organize and run for office." The group's slogan is "Resist, Insist, Persist, Enlist."

In her email, she named the first five groups to which she will play benefactor-Color of Change, Indivisible, Swing Left, Emerge America, and Run for Something. The latter three will be the first to receive financial support, receiving checks "in the low six figures," according to Merrill, with funds coming from money left over from the campaign (at the end of 2016, the campaign reported it still had $7.8 million on hand) and fundraising to begin via the new website.

The organization arose out of conversations between Clinton and former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who Clinton named as a partner in a tweetstorm yesterday afternoon. Merrill says Clinton had been considering how to "lift up" these organizations that were inspiring her when Dean came to her separately with the same idea. Together they began vetting groups, with the help of Judith McHale, a former State Department undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under Clinton, and exploring what kind of support they could provide.

For now, that help will be mainly financial and providing the use of the Clinton fundraising list to increase name recognition of the groups. In her tweetstorm, Clinton said she was working for "a kinder, big-hearted, inclusive America," and earlier reports said she was looking to be a "quiet catalyst" for change, but Merrill acknowledged that Clinton, of course, wants to see an increase in Democrats in elective office.

The three organizations getting the first donations are, of course, grateful for the help. Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something (and the former e-mail director for the Clinton campaign), an organization that recruits and supports young progressives who want to run for office, said that it was not only Clinton's donation-which the organization would use to hire new staff-that would help out but the imprimatur of being singled out by Clinton among the throng of start-ups that sprung up after Trump's election. "The donor landscape is a confusing place right now," she said. "We're hoping more mother funders will step up and join her."

Swing Left was founded by complete political newcomers-executive director Ethan Todras-Whitehill is a writer who was teaching GMAT classes when, the day after the election, he came up with the idea of a group that could help citizens identify nearby swing districts and get involved in turning them blue. They now have 300,000 members. Onward Together's seed money will help them ramp up, he says, but he also sees Clinton as a convener, bringing like-minded grassroots groups together to share ideas and energy.

Emerge America, on the other hand, is an already established group that trains Democratic women to run for office and operates in 18 states. With an already impressive success rate-70 percent of the women they train who run for office win their elections, even in red states like Kentucky, they have seen applications for their program rise by 87 percent and have groups in new states clamoring to start affiliates. President and founder Andrea Dew Steele says they will use the funds to try to keep up with that demand and, of course, appreciate the boost to their national profile, noting they gained 1000 new Twitter followers in the hour after Clinton first tweeted about them.

But the timing of Clinton's low-key announcement-a week after the furor over Trump's abrupt dismissal of FBI director James Comey in the midst of his investigation into the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia and hours before The Washington Post broke the story that Trump had revealed classified information to a Russian envoy last week-has meant that the response to her announcement has been muted outside of the immediate circle of these groups.

Elizabeth Warren tweeted out that she was "Glad to see the terrific groups Hillary Clinton is supporting-they're doing great work!" And Brian Fallon, a former Clinton staffer and current advisor to Priorities USA, the largest Democratic SuperPAC, emailed me that, "If Hillary Clinton can put her considerable fundraising skills to work to help scale up these grassroots organizations that represent the next generation of progressive activism, I think that is about as smart a contribution as she can make right now." But another Democratic insider in the trenches of the resistance opined about the news, "I feel completely indifferent, honestly," citing the current vagueness of the Onward Together's plans and the maelstrom of other news. Others suggested that the move was welcome-as long as Clinton wasn't floating a 2020 run.

The Clinton camp insists this is not the case. "It's not about putting her front and center. It's not about raising her public profile or her political future," says Merrill. "As far as we're concerned, she doesn't have a political future, in terms of running for office." And Clinton herself recently told Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times that her current goal was "doing interesting things. I don't think that will ever include running for office again, as interesting as I find that to be."

Republicans were, predictably, more scathing in their assessment. Katie Packer Beeson, a deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's failed 2012 bid, expressed surprise that Clinton would put herself into the fray so soon after her loss. "I don't get [it] at all. It seems beneath her as a former First Lady, Secretary of State, US Senator and Presidential Nominee," she emailed. "It seems like she would want to stay out of partisan politics and raise her voice on the world stage on big issues." Packer noted that Romney mostly retired from public life after his loss, save for a few speeches. Tim Miller, Jeb Bush's former communications director, said he was likewise baffled by the move and said Bush had returned to the private sector. "What in the heck is she doing? I can't think of anything the Democratic party needs less than her sucking up oxygen with a toxic brand," he wrote. "If she were smart, she would stay out of the limelight, pick an issue to help on behind the scenes, and let other spick up the mantle."

But Clinton sees her efforts as a form of passing the torch and "bringing in new blood." And, if it's true, as her aides say, that she's returning to her roots as an activist and doing what she truly wants-regardless of any sniping-then it's probably about time.

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