Tuesday, June 10, 2008

You can lead the Donkey to Water...

Let me get this out of the way first: I am a backer of Obama for President. I don't think he's the second coming (of Bill thank goodness), or the next JFK (better than that, I hope). His candidacy is historic, his policy positions are sound (if fairly pedestrian in most cases). He's highly charismatic. I'm not inclined to praise his every move, however.

That said, one of the first things he did after securing the Democratic nomination made my heart leap. He extended his campaign's ban on money from political action committees (PACs) and lobbyists to the Democratic National Committee. Now, there are nits to pick, but that's what they are: nits. This is a huge, huge step toward the kind of comprehensive campaign reform that we so desperately need in our democracy. It's a step toward returning the process to individuals and taking it out of the hands of special interest groups, industry, corporate America (fill in all the standard Progressive bogey-men).

More should follow if he's elected (I say that as an admonition, not a prediction); more needs to happen. But if the reaction of "some Democrats"--the ones you'd expect, actually--is anything to go by, this pill will be bitterly resisted. By lobbyists for example.

CBS (affectionately known around these parts as the "Conservative Broadcasting System") says, "Obama's Donation Ban Irks Some Dems."

Ah, there's that lovely phrase, the call of the douche: "Some _____ ." Some? Which some? Who some? How many some? Ah, my friend, ask not. Know only that there is a silent current of dissent. "Some." You know who "they" are. Right under CBS's title, it says, "Politico: Many Congressional Candidates Feel They Can't Turn Their Backs On Money From Lobbyists And PACs." Many, eh? Yet none of them made it into the story, somehow.

It turns out that only one congressional staffer was willing to comment on this. And they have a good point: Obama is raking in the dough. He can afford to forgoe the largesse of the lobbyist and the PAC. Important to point out (which even NPR failed to do) is that receiving the endorsement of a PAC is very different from receiving money from a PAC. They also neglect to point out that Obama made this pledge long before it looked smart, or even financially possible. *

PACs and lobbyists always will be. It's how you choose to deal with that circumstance that makes the difference between representative democracy -- which we don't have -- and a government employed by corporations -- which we do.

Nevertheless, it's hard for the DCCC and the DSCC to go cold turkey. You can do it--cut off 60% of your campaign revenue stream--but only if the other side is going to do it, too. The GoP is pretty far from even beginning to entertain the possibility of remotely considering that. Even though this looks to be an "up" year for Democrats, going cold turkey is a lot to ask of them. For now.

But I feel no sympathy for the puling of the the lobbyist herd:
Another Democratic lobbyist said Obama’s ban effectively tars everyone who can’t live up to it. “Now you’re implying that the House and Senate Democrats - and Republicans - are scumbags that take lobbyist money,” the lobbyist fumed.
Oh, wah. And, yes, lobbyist money is inherently tainted. Here's why:

A lobbyist is a hired gun. He or she gets paid to forward the positions of their clients by getting the attention of elected representatives and providing said rep with data and argumentation in the hope of wooing the rep to side of the lobbyist's client. When a lobbyist donates big cookies to a politician, it raises that lobbyists profile in the eyes of even the most upright of congressmen. It gives them a bigger radar blip. They have essentially purchased more input with that representative then an average constituent. They count more than a voter. Because they paid for it. And that's when the system is working correctly.

But our system is quite compromised. The barest scratch has been made in the reams of files generated by the Jack Abramoff scandal, and already indictments are being handed down. "This town has become very corrupt, there's no doubt about it." That was John Sidney McCain speaking in 2005. When the man responsible for keeping the vast majority of the proof out of the public eye is saying that, you ought to believe him.
“There’s nothing wrong with lobbyist and PAC money, because the government can’t be bought,” said Nicholas Allard, co-chairman of the public policy department at lobbying firm Patton Boggs and a veteran of many Democratic campaigns, including former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 White House bid.
Whew. That's either breaktakingly naive or nauseatingly disingenuous. You can take your pick, but I'm going with the latter. The Abramoff scandal is the very picture of pay-to-play politics. Certainly there were illegalities and outright corruption. Bob Ney (R-OH) actually had a menu, listing what he cost for various favors. It just goes to show you: McCain was right about something. That town is corrupt (J. Sidney not excepted). Just ask Democrat William Jefferson. (Jefferson, of course, is significant not because he was indicted and convicted, but because he was a Democrat and therefore stands out from the flood.)

The saying in Washington, of course, is "The real scandal isn't what's illegal; the real scandal is what's legal!" (That exclamation point is meant to signify the glee the speaker feels at finding your gold in his pocket.) As Hendrick Hertzberg put it:
The attractions of a K Street job are actually more perilous to the souls of Democrats, who are supposed to be tribunes of “working families.” Still, many of them succumbed to its lure when their party was in power. (Some still do, in the unlikely event that they can get hired.) But hypocrisy tinges their prosperity with shame. No such guilt need trouble those whose ideology glorifies Moloch as a matter of course. And a legislator who identifies wealth with virtue, but is condemned, for the time being, to live on the salary of a public servant, may come to see the lobbyist’s skybox as his natural habitat.

This is the beginning of exfoliating for the Democratic Party, I hope. Slough off the dead skin, cut out the cancer. Triangulation was, it is now obvious, a short term strategy. When you don't stand for anything in particular, you can be moved by your own best interest. Perhaps Mr. Allard is a harmless example of that. Perhaps Joe Lieberman is a sad example of that. It just goes to show you: You can lead the Donkey to water, but you can't make it drink. But you can make it into glue.

I understand lobbyists are particularly sticky.

* Super tip of the hat to my candidate, John Edwards, who made this a centerpiece of his whole campaign.

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