Last night, President Bill Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore prepared to do their bit for the cause by addressing a dinner in central Washington for several dozen of the party's most prominent supporters. Those attending were to be urged to raise at least 250,000 dollars each over the next two years to see the party through the mid-term legislative elections and prepare the way for the presidential contest in 2000.
The dinner was part of a wider appeal, spearheaded by the party's political strategist, James Carville, to try to rescue the party's ailing finances. The Democrats are $14m (pounds 8.6m) in debt from last year's presidential election and are in the process of refunding an estimated $3m dollars in contributions suspected of coming illegally from foreign sources.
In letters that are just starting to arrive in members' mail-boxes, Mr Carville describes the situation as "dire" and says the party is already having to cut back its operations.
"Without immediate action," he writes, "any hope of retaking Congress next year, or in 2000, may evaporate before our eyes. In addition, our party could be crippled for years." He also warns: "You'll also be looking at a Republican Congress and a Republican president in 2000".
While the letter smacks to an extent of fund-raiser's hyperbole, the finances of the Demo-cratic Party have been far from healthy ever since the turn of the year. Although President Clinton was easily re-elected last November, the campaign was expensive and the party's coffers have not been replenished as the party of a second-term president might have hoped.
In his appeal, Mr Carville lays the blame for the dearth of new contributions on the Republicans (for exploiting the Demo-crats' funding woes). Admitting that the Democrats made some "honest mistakes", he says the Republicans then did "everything possible ... to drag our party's name through the mud".
The "honest mistakes" include fund-raising coffee-mornings at the White House, the use of White House offices and telephones to solicit campaign contributions, and rewards for generous donors, ranging from bed-and-breakfast in the White House Lincoln bedroom to trips in the presidential plane. Any of these, if true, would break rules that forbid the use of the White House for party, rather than presidential, purposes.
In an attempt to limit the damage to the party from such accusations, President Clinton agreed to the formation of a congressional committee to investigate possible fund-raising abuses by both main parties.
Since reports of fund-raising abuses started to circulate, however, the problem is no longer excessive contributions, but no contributions at all. Two big donors have said they will no longer contribute. Others seem wary of contributing for fear of tarnishing their good name by association, while many individual donors have become cynical. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of those asked said their elected representatives would be more responsive to large political contributors than to their constituents.
The most optimistic outcome of the current problems would be a thorough discussion of ways in which the system could be reformed. The more likely outcome is a Democratic Party machine that is so tainted and strapped for cash that it becomes a serious liability to Al Gore if he decides to run for president in 2002.Reuse content