Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton claims that Sen. Barack Obama's Hope Fund PAC deliberately contributed to candidates in key early primary states in 2006 with the aim of securing their later support. Never mind that the Hope Fund gave to a broad spectrum of candidates - including, oddly, Mrs. Clinton herself. If she really wants Democratic voters to judge their potential nominees on their 2006 choices, she might not like the judgments they make.
Last year was a Democratic opportunity, and grass-roots supporters dug deep to finance an ever-expanding array of competitive races. Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, decided to raise $52 million for a Senate campaign that she could have won in her pajamas, spent $40.8 million to beat a token opponent who spent less than $6 million, and transferred the rest to her presidential campaign.
You could say she was just playing the game, but John Edwards and Mr. Obama, in comparison, campaigned throughout the country to support worthy Democratic candidates, while doing negligible fundraising for their own pending campaigns. The Edwards campaign ended that season still in debt from 2004. Mr. Obama emerged with less than $1 million in the bank. Their top priorities really did seem to be helping other Democrats win a critical election, instead of subordinating all other goals to their personal futures.
For another contrast, the entire Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised only $107 million that season, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee $103 million. Mrs. Clinton spent more than a third as much as either of these, more than any candidate in America that year. Only the self-funded Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat, has ever spent more for a Senate race. And she did this for a race that was never in doubt.
Imagine if Mrs. Clinton had transferred $20 million into the dozen congressional campaigns that Democrats lost by margins as close as a few hundred votes, or into Harold E. Ford Jr.'s senatorial campaign, to help close a $5 million gap with Republican Bob Corker in Tennessee. By late summer, it was clear that the Democrats had a huge opportunity and were scrambling for the funds to respond to it. A few extra ads or mailings might well have tipped the balance in more of these races.
That's why so many of us were stretching to contribute, even when it hurt. Mrs. Clinton made different decisions. As may have been true with her support of a recent vote to label Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group, her priority was election-year positioning.
If we compare Mrs. Clinton's actions to those of the ordinary citizens whose time and money made a critical difference, she comes up short. She also comes up short compared with her main Democratic rivals. While the money she spent may have gained her a few extra points of electoral margin, it did nothing to shift the power from an administration she said she opposed.
If we're going to use 2006 as a measure of presidential character, we might remember the choices Mrs. Clinton could have made - and the priorities she chose instead.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of "Soul of a Citizen" and "The Impossible Will Take a Little While." His Web site is www.paulloeb.org.