The news that Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild -- a prominent supporter of both Clintons who raised millions of dollars for Democrats over the years -- has decided to back John McCain in November sent a small ripple throughout Washington on Wednesday.
But to top aides for Sen. Clinton and other party fundraisers, it wasn't a surprise. A former Clinton staffer tells the Huffington Post that a full on persuasion campaign was waged early this week, with Clinton die-hards essentially begging the multi-millionaire donor and member of the DNC platform committee not to buck her party's nominee.
At her McCain-Palin sponsored press conference Wednesday, Rothschild denied that she had heard from Hillary Clinton at all about her impending choice. While technically true, the source said there's no way Rothschild doesn't know how Clinton feels. "Hillary's top people begged her not to do this," the source said, "and she took their calls."
The consequences of the break between Rothschild and her preferred Democratic candidate back during the primaries could be stark. "If Obama loses, what is Lynn going to do in 2012? Campaign against McCain?" the source asked. "It doesn't make any sense. ... Clinton can take her money, because everyone takes Republican money. But after November, she can't work on any of the things she cares about, like caucus reform," the source noted. "Will she get a big position [with Hillary]? No."
While the Obama campaign had no official response, another well-placed Democrat from outside the Clinton camp openly mocked Rothschild's move. "The Duke of York already had plans, so Lady de Rothschild was the next most important endorsement to reassure working Americans during the economic crisis," the Democrat told the Huffington Post, jabbing Rothschild's complaint that Obama strikes too "elitist" a tone for average Americans.
The Democratic source also noted a 2007 interview with Rothschild, in which she said that "we've had stronger economies, more wealth creation, under Democratic presidents than we have under Republican presidents."
The implication, of course, is that Rothschild just really really hates Obama more than she supports McCain. When asked today if her move was a personal swipe at Obama, Rothschild denied it was about personalities. She touted McCain's leadership on global warming while ignoring Palin's statements disputing the fact that the situation is man-made. All Rothschild had to say about Palin was that "she's pretty cool," and that she was happy that the Republicans had nominated a woman. And while Rothschild reiterated her pro-choice beliefs, she said that abortion was being used as "a noose" around the necks of women voters.
I'd spoken to Rothschild over the phone for several stories during the past few months -- along with other prominent Clinton "Hillraisers" who were somewhat skittish about backing Obama. Based on those encounters, I had a few questions for her today, the answers to which suggested that her support for McCain was less than entirely thought-through at an ideological level.
Rothschild once told me that if she were to ever support McCain, it would be "more in sadness than in anger." Today, however, she touted her "enthusiastic support" for the McCain-Palin ticket during her press conference. When I asked her whether she still held onto any of that former sadness, Rothschild looked taken aback and said she was sad about the Democratic Party in general, as led by Howard Dean and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Another of Rothschild's top issues during the primary was the "one person, one vote" mantra familiar to many Clinton supporters. In fact, Rothschild emailed me personally on several occasions to talk about caucus reform, describing herself as "ashamed" when the Democratic platform committee denied an amendment she supported that spelled out a firm commitment to voting rights in the primary process.
Today, when I asked Rothschild whether she would use her new influence in the McCain camp to look into charges of GOP voter suppression in Michigan, Wisconsin and Mississippi, Rothschild again looked unprepared, rocked back on her heels, and said she'd have to look into the issues more fully. "You've really done your research," she said.
After the press conference, during an elevator ride with Rothschild and some McCain aides who were, apparently, staffing her, I offered that while I wasn't surprised to see her supporting McCain, I was surprised to see her taking such a public role as a surrogate.
(At the opening of the press conference, McCain campaign workers passed out Rothschild's impressive bio as the CEO of various companies and as a law school graduate of Columbia. And with former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina purportedly thrown under McCain's bus for her recent gaffes, it appears there would be an opening for a new female executive out on the trail.)
"Me too," she said. "Isn't this an interesting election season? And we thought it was going to be boring."
"When did you think that?" I asked.
"Oh, last year," Rothschild replied. "And that's probably the reason why Hillary Clinton won't be president," she added ruefully, before laughing at the mistaken hubris of the Clinton campaign's onetime "inevitability."
The GOP operatives with us in the elevator managed a few light chuckles through tight, nervous grimaces -- the beginning of a very odd partnership.