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No, She Can't

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL is an actor and writer living in Tysons Corner.
RACHEL MANTEUFFEL is an actor and writer living in Tysons Corner. (Courtesy Author)
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By Rachel Manteuffel
Sunday, January 18, 2009

This is a story about how Election 2008 proved that anything is possible. Specifically, that it is possible for someone like me -- a passionate liberal with scant money and no political connections -- to step up and make a real difference, by accidentally donating thousands of dollars I do not have toward getting Republicans elected to Congress.

Here's how. Some weeks before the election, I was going door-to-door canvassing for Barack Obama. Most people weren't home. Some were in the middle of something. Dogs were indignant. One small boy who answered the door yelled "Mo-om! It's Barack Obama!" The mom looked sort of disappointed to see me standing there, and I knew how she felt. I hadn't changed any minds so far, and my shoes were wet.

That's when I realized there is a more traditional and effective form of political speech I hadn't yet tried: money, the original voice of the people.

My political voice is small and tinny, inasmuch as I am fiscally disorganized and largely insolvent. A credit card would be a disaster, but my bank has issued me a debit card, which limits my spending to money I actually have, a prudent idea for people who do not keep track of balances. It is a childish arrangement that suits me well: One disburses money until one discovers one has none left, at which point one must obtain more.

With my small amount of capital, I went online and found something magical: A liberal Web site was seeking small -- even $5 -- donations for its favored candidates all across the country. I had five dollars! I had DOZENS of five dollarses! The glory was in down-ticket races, in which $5 would matter. There were idealistic, liberal people running enthusiastic, under-funded campaigns in places like Idaho and Texas, people who think like me. My knees jerked. My heart bled. These people needed me. I couldn't vote nearly enough in this election, so I donated $5 from my debit card to everyone I would have voted for if I could. It was dizzying, intoxicating, powerful. I kept hitting the "Donate Now" button for the heady rush of feeling politically effective.

Days later, I got a call from a nice young man who wanted to discuss my bank account, which, he said, was overdrawn by an unfathomable amount. I was in the red by far more money than I usually had in the account. I was dumbstruck. Isn't a debit account designed so that I couldn't spend any money that wasn't actually real and mine? The man checked to see what I had spent all that money on. It was overdraft fees. The biggest overdraft fees he had ever seen. More than $2,000 worth. All but one of which were from my ridiculously small donations to lefty candidates and causes.

"Small" turned out to be the problem. The transactions were so low that my card kept right on working, triggering no automatic oversight. They all blipped through, but each blip meant a $35 fee. So when I was giving $5 for someone I couldn't vote for, I was also donating seven times that amount to the banking industry.

After regaining my composure, I went to the bank to tell them they could not possibly be serious and got a lecture on fiscal responsibility from a financial organization that had recently sought a multibillion-dollar dowry from the federal government just to appear financially attractive enough to get bought up in a fire sale.

At this point, my bank was freezing credit for most people. I, however, was pure profit for them, handing them money just like the Fed chairman.

Meanwhile, as my bank sought billions in federal bailout funds on the grounds that it had made too many bad loans, it also managed to lend the National Republican Congressional Committee $8 million to finance a final push in the weeks before the election -- funds that, since they wouldn't be repaid until after November, amounted to a massive, temporary campaign contribution. And where did it get the cash for that? Apparently, amid all the bad debt, the bank did have some income, in the form of deposits and, cough, fees.

To summarize, every time I donated $5 to a leftist cause, I also gave $35 to the opposite side, over and over again.

On top of all that, notice that I had been trying to solve a problem by throwing money at it and that I had failed with spectacular incompetence. My bout of political activism not only impoverished me and enriched my opponents, but it also transformed me from merely inconsequential to the embodiment of liberal stereotype. The audacity of dope.

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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