Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2004 / 10 Shevat, 5764

Robert Stewart

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The coming anti-lobbyist lobby? | By now, citizens of states participating in today's primaries have had an earful about the role of "special interests." But defining what a "special interest" is, as described by presidential primary candidates in the current debate, is a difficult task. And as their mentor, Bill Clinton, so famously suggested, it often depends on what your definition of "is," is.

With Hussein in custody and the economy turning the corner, Democrat presidential aspirants returned to an oft-used, if stale, strategy: a pious attack on special interests — at least those that support some other candidate.

The anti-lobbyist rhetoric reached a crescendo over the weekend, with Democrats creating a circular firing squad of accusations and defenses. Typical among the politically virtuous was Sen. John Edwards on Sunday's Face the Nation declaring that were it up to him, he "would ban (lobbyists') contributions and stop the revolving door from government into lobbying firms," and require more disclosure — a subtle jab at both John Kerry's lobbyists largesse, and Howard Dean's failure to unseal more than 100 boxes of gubernatorial records.

This is not a new theme for Edwards. When condemning the role of lobbyists, he often says Americans should, "cut them off at the knees." Harsh words for a man whose largest source of political contributions is from fellow trial lawyers — some of the most powerful political muscle on Capitol Hill. Without this particular special interest, his campaign would be merely struggling to get out of debt.

He is not alone: All five serious contenders for the Democrat presidential nomination claim to be the defender of the helpless against special interests, Washington lobbyists and the Bigs (Big Oil, Big HMOs, Big Business and other Big bogeymen.). But the truth is, they have all benefited from such groups, and more important, none would argue for a complete ban on issue groups or political money and influence.

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In fact, four of the five rose to their political positions with the help of lobbyists and advocacy groups. The three senators in the group — John Kerry, John Edwards and Joseph Lieberman — are no strangers to "special interest groups," as the recipients of donations, volunteers and "advice" from these same political pariahs. And as governor of Vermont Howard Dean met with and took campaign funds from individuals or groups who had business in the state. The fifth, Wesley Clark, is himself a former lobbyist.

All five, particularly the three with day jobs, have an opportunity to do something about the influence of special interest groups: they can refuse to meet, take correspondence from, or have anything to do with anyone associated in any way with any "special interest." But they don't, and won't, else their campaigns slip into bankrupt obscurity.

They are flawed messengers for the purity crusade, as it's the continued contact with and actions for various groups that dampens the integrity of their message. Edwards, along with fellow senators Kerry and Lieberman, decry the role of "special interests," while at the same time meeting with, and often assisting, these very same groups through their Senate offices.

And though the term "special interest groups" often evokes the image of well-heeled Washington lawyers shilling for wealthy conglomerates, such groups also include the American Heart Association, La Raza, March for Dimes, NAACP and many others with good intent. Though non-profits are banned from providing political donations, they nonetheless work overtime to influence the debate. And their "voter scorecards" and election day mobilizations are both feared and coveted on the Hill.

But should these groups have no influence in Washington? Should they be banned from the political debate? How about the AFL-CIO or the Teamsters or AFSCME? What about NARAL or Planned Parenthood or the Christian Coalition? And what of the teachers unions, or police and firefighters (ever see Kerry at a political rally without a "firefighters for Kerry" sign?). Will these candidates run such "special interests" from the halls of power as well, or just those who've not yet donated time, money or volunteers to their campaign?

And the condemnations always seemed to be aimed at the other guy — the guy that's "awash in lobbyist money." The pious primary preachers point to the lobbyists in the other candidate's camp while failing to acknowledge the tasseled-loafer crowd in their own backyard.

So if there is to be a true anti-lobbyist lobby, it will be small: In such an organization, only those who have not yet sinned may cast the first political, anti-special interest stone.

JWR contributor Robert Stewart, a former Army intelligence analyst, is now a writer based in Washington, D.C. Comment by clicking here.


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10/21/03: Is this war being won? You bet, just don't ask the congressman with the embarrassingly bad timing

© 2003, Robert Stewart