Politics

What Made Richardson Flip?

Clinton insiders speculate about Obama’s offer to him.

Barack Obama and Bill Richardson. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama and Bill Richardson

What did Barack Obama offer Bill Richardson for his endorsement? Nothing, say both the Obama and Richardson camps, but this is the question angry and jilted Clinton supporters are asking in the wake of Richardson’s announcement a week ago that he would support Obama rather than their woman.

Despite Clinton strategist Mark Penn’s effort to downplay the endorsement, Richardson’s move was very helpful to Obama. When Richardson said he’d decided to back Obama in part because of Obama’s speech reacting to the uproar over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his move became a symbolic end point to the controversy. Richardson also went beyond mere praise, calling for Democrats to rally around Obama and bring the contest to a close.

It is a standard tactic to accuse a turncoat of having been bought off. Some would say this is the Corleone reflex in the Clinton world, which punishes those who stray. What better way to malign Richardson than to claim low motives, which undermines Richardson’s professed reason—that he was inspired by Obama’s grand speech on race.

But Clinton supporters say Richardson was poised to join the family—in fact, he was already a charter member—and the speed of his reversal makes them think self-interest must have played a role in his jump. Many of those who are angriest have known Richardson a long time and have raised money for his various campaigns. They talked to him while he was sitting on the fence, and in those conversations, they say, he signaled his eventual support for Hillary. Why renege on old friends? A grand offer must have been in the offing, the detractors surmise.

On Thursday, I talked to one of those in the Clinton circle who had talked to Richardson, and that source said the damning reason the former energy secretary gave for his then-apparent plan to support Clinton was Obama’s lack of experience—the central nail Clinton has been hammering. Not to mention that experience was the basis for Richardson’s own presidential campaign.

On Larry King Live on Thursday night, James Carville, who branded Richardson “Judas” for what Carville said was a particularly high level of betrayal, named a handful of Clinton fundraisers who say they had similar cheery conversations with Richardson. Richardson also gave former President Bill Clinton the impression that he would ultimately back Hillary Clinton as well as Bill Clinton’s top aides. When Bill Clinton called Richardson on hearing the news of his endorsement switch, Richardson refused to return his phone calls. “I wouldn’t treat President Bush the way he treated President Clinton,” says Carville. Richardson’s communication director, Gilbert Gallegos, says no such representations were made to anyone connected to Clinton and that when Bill Clinton flew to New Mexico to watch the Super Bowl with Richardson, the governor was clear about his intentions. “Gov. Richardson told President Clinton not to come to New Mexico for the Super Bowl if he expected an endorsement,” says Gallegos.

This has been a bad week for Clinton’s financial backers. In addition to the Richardson betrayal, they also feel that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has turned on them. Despite their years of supporting the party, they have been unable to use their leverage to move Pelosi away from what they see as her public support for Obama. Though Pelosi says she is neutral, she has said that the superdelegates should follow the will of the pledged delegates. Since Obama holds an insurmountable lead among the pledged delegates, this is just a long way for her to say, “Elect Barack.” Clinton fundraisers wrote to Pelosi asking that she retract her remarks and support the party rules that allow superdelegates to vote their conscience. Furious at the letter, she refused to

What’s significant about the Pelosi and Richardson duet is that both seem to have made a calculation that in the long-brewing tension between party elites and the new grass roots, they’re siding with the latter. These veteran Democrats may be making their moves based on their assessments of Obama as a candidate, but they also may be informed by his success in raising money online and from a huge number of small-dollar donors, which may mean a dilution in the power of traditional rainmakers. As a sign of the new landscape, Moveon.org sent out a fundraising letter asking Pelosi to stand her ground.

Richardson, through a spokesman, denies that he told anyone he would support Clinton. Those who know him say that as a politician who has negotiated with some of the world’s trickiest foreign leaders, he knows how to let people “believe what they want to believe,” as one put it. Both Obama’s and Richardson’s spokesmen offer ironclad denials that Obama offered Richardson anything specifically or implicitly in the way of a quid pro quo, and there is no actual evidence of any kind of deal.

What Bill Richardson did or didn’t extract from Barack Obama in return for his timely support may not be known until Obama wins the nomination and picks his running mate or wins the election and names his Cabinet. But there is one other little piece of evidence that suggests Richardson must have wrested some promise in return for his support. It’s contained in the “Richardson Rules,” his pointers for how to negotiate: “Don’t concede absolutely everything the other side is requesting. Get something in return, even if it’s minor.”