A Short History of Recent U.S. Presidential Politics - Part 8: An Inconvenient PAC
In previous posts [see Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7] I discussed historical analogies comparing the 2000 and 2008 Presidential campaigns. In particular, I've discussed how Sen. Obama is running a textbook campaign against Sen. Clinton, copying various aspects - some positive but also some highly mendacious and negative aspects - of Bill Bradley's campaign against Al Gore back in 1999/2000. In this post, I will focus on yet another "textbook" aspect of his campaign against Sen. Clinton - also copied from Bill Bradley (surprise!) - that has to do with their taking contributions from "special interest" PACs. As it turns out, this is also a good example to highlight the Clinton Double Standard.
I've pointed out before that Bradley ran his Democratic Presidential primary campaign against Gore on the platform that he would not take any contributions from PACs and that he repeatedly accused Gore of being a captive to "special interests". As Bradley said (emphasis mine, throughout this post):
I'm raising money from ordinary citizens, not from special interest PAC's.
What is not as widely known about "Dollar Bill" Bradley (who at one point beat Gore in fundraising) is that during his Senate career he didn't show such reticence about raising money from PACs. For example, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (Open Secrets.org; PDF file), during the time period of 1989-1994, Bradley had raised a total of $9.2M for his Senate campaigns. Of this total, 11% or a little over $1M came from PACs and 74% of the PAC contributions were from business groups. What's more, Bradley's convenient switch to the "no PAC $" mode during his Presidential campaign followed a period where he had used his post-Senate career in the private sector to set up a network of donors who could generously fund his future campaigns. As Joe Conason also noted in Salon.com back in 1999:
Bradley often alludes to his own purity when he speaks about the personal journey that led him to his present quest. He has described an epiphany of righteousness that made him abandon the Senate for a more contemplative life of speechmaking and writing (and, oh yes, investment banking). He felt an equal revulsion, as he said at the time, toward both Democrats and Republicans -- enough so that in 1996 he briefly considered running as an independent for president.
In fact, Gore's team pointed out Bradley's PAC-friendly history back then - only to be met with open derision from the traditional media who almost gave Bradley a free pass:
REALITY CHECK: Bradley is a newcomer to the campaign finance debate. In the Senate, Bradley set a prodigal example for campaign finance reform. He outspent his 1990 opponent 15-1 and refused to abide by voluntary spending caps; he declined to refuse PAC money and accepted more in PAC money than his opponent raised overall. In addition, Bradley did not author his own campaign finance reform bill until January of 1996, nearly five months after he announced he was retiring from the Senate. In contrast, Gore first cosponsored a campaign finance reform bill in 1979 and authored his own bill in 1986.
Here we are in Campaign 2008. I already pointed out in a previous post that although Sen. Obama has declined to take money from PACs now, he has a past history of raising a fair amount of money from PACs. He was also recently criticized for distributing funds in a questionable manner from his Hopefund PAC - a PAC for which the infamous Norman Hsu was one of the fundraisers (which, by the way, the media doesn't reveal much - another similarity to the positive media coverage received by Bradley). What's more, his "reluctance" to receive PAC $ has not been absolute:
Obama's presidential campaign takes donations from state-level lobbyists and from the families and business partners of federal lobbyists. And Obama didn't adopt the ban until he ran for president. His Hopefund political committee accepted about $125,000 from PACs after he began serving in the U.S. Senate, and his Senate campaign committee also continued to accept PAC contributions until this year.
About 40 percent of the money he raised as a state senator came from PACs, corporations and unions, including organizations with a financial stake in legislation he was sponsoring.
For instance, Obama, who often sponsored legislation on health care and prescription drugs, took $5,650 from health-related groups, $8,900 from insurance groups and $3,000 from a lobbyist representing drug companies.
Meanwhile, PACs contributed 3.2 percent of the $490,285 he raised for an unsuccessful congressional bid in 2000, and 8 percent of the $15 million he raised for his U.S. Senate race in 2004.
In other words, just as Bradley exited the Senate and adopted the "reformer" mantle in the Presidential election by renouncing PAC funds, Sen. Obama did something very similar as he entered the Presidential race after having enjoyed liberal use of PAC funds during his IL State Senate and U.S. Senate campaigns. So, there are two important observations I want to make from all this data.
First, Sen. Clinton has been repeatedly attacked by Sen. Obama for doing something he did routinely for most of his political life and something that he only conveniently "gave up" as he entered the Presidential campaign, to arm himself with the Bradleyesque attack sound-bites that he could use against his opponent. This is one more item in the long list of similarities between his campaign and that of Bill Bradley.
Second, I would urge you to read this entire AP article "Obama's Complex History with Lobbyists" (from which I excerpted a portion above) because it reveals the kind of nuance and complexity in Sen. Obama's career that he and Sen. Edwards have repeatedly denounced when it comes to Sen. Clinton's career. For example, you will notice that Sen. Obama has long had a close working relationship with many lobbyists, has often socialized with them and even worked with them to write legislation. However, he has had a fairly progressive voting record in general and he also helped write some strong ethics reform Bills in Illinois that helped curb corporatist and lobbyist influence in politics, which is highly commendable. This is the nuance you completely lose if you simply respond like unthinking Pavlovian dogs to the braying from some Democratic candidates about how candidates who take money from PACs are always unprincipled sellouts.
Some of you may recall from my post comparing Sen. Obama's and Sen. Clinton's voting history and contributions from PACs, that they both have almost equally progressive voting records. The point I was making - something completely reinforced by the AP article on Sen. Obama - is that it is quite possible for a politician to be close to lobbyists/PACs or take contributions from them and still vote very progressively. Just like Sen. Edwards' history in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Obama's history in the IL State Senate and the U.S. Senate and Sen. Clinton's history in the U.S. Senate all provide multiple pieces of strong evidence for my previous observation that that how you vote is usually a function of your ideology and your character, not how much PAC money you take. Yet, there is deep negativity among some progressives towards Sen. Clinton when it comes to the topic of PACs and "special interests", that is usually absent among the same people who worship those (Sen. Edwards and Sen. Obama) who have often fed and milked this very negativity.
I want to illustrate this dichotomy using another classic example.
Here was the Obama campaign's response to the AP article:
"Throughout his career, Barack Obama has fought to reduce the outsized influence lobbyists wield over the legislative process and to give a voice to underrepresented Americans," spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement.
Keep that in mind as we revisit Sen. Clinton's comment at Yearly Kos that resulted in boos:
Then it was Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s turn: “Well, well, I think it’s a position that John certainly has taken. Well, I have to say that I don’t, I don’t think based on my 35 years in fighting for what I believe in anybody seriously believes I am going to be influenced by a lobbyist or a particular interest group.”
When Paul Krugman wrote a thoughtful post on Sen. Clinton's comment, Matthew Yglesias wrote:
Paul Krugman does an excellent job of expressing something I was mumbling incoherently while walking around Chicago the other day:
And even if you believe Mrs. Clinton’s contention that her positions could never be influenced by lobbyists’ money — a remark that drew boos and hisses from the Chicago crowd — there’s reason to worry about the big contributions she receives from the insurance and drug industries. Are they simply betting on the front-runner, or are they also backing the Democratic candidate least likely to hurt their profits?
This is the right point to make about candidates and their donors. Worrying about whether or not contributions are corrupting people is rarely going to provide a definitive conclusion and doesn't necessarily tell you much about the merits of a proposal, either. The issue is that we should probably assume the people giving the money have some basic level of competence. The health care industry has, over the years, become a major financial backer of Clinton's. It seems they feel that she doesn't pose a huge threat to their interests. Maybe they're making a huge mistake but, as Krugman says, given that she hasn't committed herself to anything resembling a specific universal health care plan, we have to worry that they may be right.
Of course, Matt - who had a nuanced view on Clinton's Yearly Kos comments in one post - failed to point out something pretty obvious, that I've pointed out before, something that Larry Lessig missed as well:
For example, she is frequently criticized (often misleadingly) for the contributions she has received from the healthcare industry - yet it is rarely pointed out that on the 2003 Medicare Bill (one that was aggressively supported by Big Pharma + HMOs) she voted against both the initial version (which many leading Democrats - incl. Sen. Biden and Sen. Dodd - voted for) and the final version of the Bill and made a lengthy floor statement in the Senate highlighting the major problems with the Bill. If anything, her voting record on issues that corporate interests hold near and dear seems to be fairly progressive and generally comparable to Sen. Obama's, and her ratings from progressive groups and labor interests are usually very good. Perhaps even more importantly, the judgement she has shown in (not) voting for reactionary and radical nominees (esp. judicial nominees) of Bush is pretty impressive and rarely noted given the long-term impact of judicial appointments (and her record on this is arguably better than that of netroots hero Sen. Russell Feingold). So, while it is fair to criticize her for her position on lobbyists, I think to do so without simultaneously giving her credit for her voting record is unfair.
Matt could have easily cited the fact that even though the healthcare industry was a "major financial backer" of Sen. Clinton (for the record, Sen. Clinton's lifetime contributions from healthcare related PACs is ~$266K - a mere drop in the ocean of the total contributions she has received!), she voted against their interests in a very important recent legislation, unlike some other Democrats. Rather, the extra-negative image of her is passed on repeatedly while Sen. Obama continues to be portrayed as Mr. Clean despite lobbyists and PACs having being a "major financial backer" of his.
Without a doubt, there are rational and respectable people who may have booed Sen. Clinton at Yearly Kos because they just didn't know enough about the relationship between lobbyist/PAC $ and her voting record. But I have also read and discussed here the stenographic or knee-jerk reactions of many alleged "progressives" who have displayed unbelievable, unjustifiable and irrational aversion or hatred towards Sen. Clinton only to excuse or applaud views or positions of her opponents that are very similar to hers. This is as distressing as it is rather revealing.