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Hillary Clinton Is Back. Should Democrats Be Worried?

The two-time failed presidential candidate is launching a PAC to support activist groups. But it could do more harm than good.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images

After Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary loss to Barack Obama, she and Bill kept a hit list that assigned members of Congress a number between one (“most helpful”) and seven (“most treacherous”), depending on how loyal they had been to the Clintons, according to the 2014 book HRC by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. They report in their recently released follow-up, Shattered, that Hillary Clinton took her revenge against Chris Van Hollen—who had been given a most treacherous score of seven—in the last primary cycle in 2016.

To be fair, Van Hollen was trying to get his union backers in Maryland to not drive black labor to the polls, thus passively suppressing votes that would help the progressive, black candidate in the senatorial primary, Donna Edwards. (Van Hollen’s spokesperson has disputed the reporting in Allen and Parnes’s book.) Clinton, for her part, wanted to turn out black voters so she could win big in the state and send Bernie Sanders a decisive message. When she found out Van Hollen’s plan, she told an aide, “Who gives a fuck about Chris Van Hollen?” Clinton reportedly worked against Van Hollen to both punish someone she considered a traitor and to aid herself—all while ensuring the unions toed her line. As Allen and Parnes write, she felt “entitled to the kind of fealty typically accorded the party’s nominee for president.”

It’s the kind of story that makes some liberals nervous about Clinton’s return to Democratic politics. Last week, Axios reported that she will be launching a new PAC, Onward Together. From what we know so far, the PAC will raise money from big-money donors and disburse it to various groups within the Trump resistance, and eventually to congressional candidates in 2018. She will be one of several forces attempting to fill the leadership void in the party, which is energized but still reeling from Donald Trump’s surprise election. Clinton’s involvement is bound to be controversial, dividing a party that is united in its opposition to Trump, but remains torn on the best way to beat him.

On its face, this move makes a lot of sense for Clinton. Democrats are certainly going to need money, and a lot of it, if they want to take back Congress. And though Clinton had many flaws as a candidate, she was undeniably good at fundraising: She amassed a war chest of $1.4 billion for her presidential bid. This included the $598 million she raised for the party through joint fundraising committees and the record-setting $188 million raised by the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA, more than any other super PAC since such organizations were born in 2010. For more than four decades, Clinton has schmoozed her way to (nearly) the top, cultivating and maintaining a massive network of donors that includes billionaires in essentially every industry—Silicon Valley, oil and gas, Wall Street—as well as large labor unions like AFSCME. Wherever Clinton goes, money follows.

But the big question is how she will spend the buckets of money she will inevitably raise. Funneling this money to other organizations is smart—there are a plethora of Democratic groups that need it, and could use the help of a well-connected organization backed by Clinton’s clout. In the best-case scenario, Onward Together could direct money towards grassroots groups that have sprung up in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, like Indivisible and Knock Every Door, as well as established organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

But the worst case would be if Clinton raised money only to spend it propping up loyalists, hindering more progressive candidates and causes, and giving a distinctly Clintonian shape to an organic grassroots movement that has so far operated outside the Democratic Party’s control. What’s worrisome is that this is not a far-fetched scenario. Clinton notoriously prizes loyalty above all else, to the point that she often seems incapable of taking even well-meaning advice from those outside her inner circle. She has also consistently misread the mood of the country and her own party, which has been in evidence ever since she re-entered the national spotlight earlier this month.

In her interview last Tuesday with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the first lengthy debrief she has given since the election, Clinton gave little indication that her loss to Trump has caused her to rethink her approach to politics. When asked what she could have been done differently, she failed to point to any specific problems with her own campaign strategy (like ghosting on Michigan) or the fact that she ran as an establishment candidate in an anti-establishment year. Instead Clinton pointed to the Comey letter, Russia, and WikiLeaks.

These factors clearly had an impact on the election, but Clinton has given no indication, for example, that she has thought deeply about the fact that, of the voters who switched from Barack Obama to Trump, twice as many thought Democratic economic policies were more favorable to the wealthy than Trump’s policies. This lack of reflection does not bode well for an organization that will be raking in money from big Democratic donors and choosing where to spend it.

This leads to another problem: the question of who will be giving money to Clinton’s PAC. Relying on Wall Street will only solidify the impression that Democrats are beholden to high finance. As Matt Yglesias argued at Vox, Obama’s recent decision to accept a $400,000 Wall Street speaking fee reaffirms the idea that “mainstream politics is just a moneymaking hustle.” Optics matter, and if Clinton’s new organization leans on the same financial sector donors that her presidential campaign did, it could be similarly damaging to the party as whole.

All of this cuts against the ethos that has animated progressive candidates across the country, many of whom have chosen to rely on grassroots donations. The liberal base is more riled up than ever, propelling the populist candidacies of people like Rob Quist in Montana and James Thompson in Kansas—races that the Democratic Party ignored until the last minute.

Clinton’s return is certain to send tremors through the political landscape. Even if she doesn’t try to throw her weight around, her political organization will, to some degree, help set the agenda of the Democratic Party going forward. Whether Clinton pushes for a party based on centrist, loyalty-first strategies, or chooses instead to stoke the leftward energy at the core of the Trump resistance, is entirely up to her.