Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute. His new book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, will be published in August 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He has written extensively about American politics, civil rights, and the intersection of money and politics. His stories have also appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The Guardian, and he is a frequent guest and commentator on MSNBC and NPR. His first book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, was published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Photo by Ports Bishop)
Remember that old story about the pot and the kettle. Well, Tom Edsall of the Huffington Post reports today that John McCain, the once-crusading reformer, has more lobbyists on his staff than any other '08 presidential candidate.
Two of his top guns are Congressmen-turned-lobbyists Tom Loeffler of Texas and Slade Gordon of Washington, who represent clients such PhrMA, the powerful pharmaceutical industry trade group whose influence McCain used to regularly deride. McCain called the Medicare privatization bill of 2003 the "Leave No Lobbyist Behind Bill." Now those very same lobbyists are members of his inner circle.
One of McCain's top operatives is Charlie Black, an ally of Ahmad Chalabi and Lockheed Martin, another company McCain has criticized for its sweetheart deals with the Defense Department. (Black's lobbying firm, BKSH & Associates, also happens to be a subsidiary of Burson-Marsteller, the huge PR firm run by Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn.)
As the post-Watergate presidential financing system collapses and Congressional elections grow more expensive by the millions every cycle, Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter believe it's time to fundamentally change the way campaigns are financed and run. Earlier this year they introduced the first bipartisan bill to publicly finance federal races, modeled after successful "clean election" laws at the state and local levels. (See The Nation's "Making Elections Fair.") This week the Senate Rules Committee held the first of what reformers hope will be many hearings on Durbin-Specter and the corrupting influence of big money on politics. Our Washington intern Matthew Blake attended the hearing and filed this report:
On Wednesday morning, Senators Durbin and Specter were given a chance to make an impassioned plea to their colleagues about why the current financing system was broken--and how their bill would fix it.
"Politicians spend so many hours with special interests and wealthy donors that we don't know what life is like for average working people," Durbin told the committee. "We need to get out of the fundraising business and into the constituent and policy business."
Barack Obama won the first annual Take Back America straw poll held this afternoon. Of the over 700 respondents, 29 percent favored Obama, followed by John Edwards in a close second with 26 percent and Hillary Clinton in third with 17 percent. Al Gore won a not-too-shabby 8 percent as a write-in candidate.
For their second choices, Obama voters picked Edwards and vice versa, reflecting a strong anti-Hillary contingent at the conference.
The war in Iraq was the top issue for those surveyed, followed by health care and energy/global warming. The top priorities for those at the conference largely mirrored the American public as a whole said pollster Stan Greenberg, who conducted the survey in conjunction with the Politico.com.
Last summer, when she criticized the idea of setting a timetable to withdraw US forces from Iraq, Hillary Clinton was met with a chorus of boos at the annual Take Back America conference.
This year was supposed to be different. Hillary now pledges to end the war on her first day in office. But yet again she experienced boos at Take Back America when she put the blame on the Iraqi government for the mess in Iraq.
"The American military has succeeded," she said midway through her speech. "It is the Iraqi government that has failed." That line has become a standard talking point for politicians of both parties, especially Republicans. But the disingenuousness of the argument didn't sit right at TBA.
Since last November, the United States government has been prepping fighters from Fatah, the security arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), to do battle with Hamas. "The plan, which [Condoleezza Rice] developed after speaking to President Bush, was to put pressure on the Hamas government by providing the Palestinian security forces loyal to [Mahmoud] Abbas with training, intelligence, and large shipments of supplies and new weapons, paid for by the United States and by Saudi Arabia," the Atlantic Monthly reported recently.
The $86 million plan, masterminded by Elliott Abrams of Iran-Contra fame, didn't work out as planned. Hamas easily routed Fatah in Gaza last week. It was both a diplomatic and military failure for the United States.
The US operation received surprisingly little scrutiny in this country. Few pundits noted the irony of the Bush Administration attempting to undermine the democratically-elected (though hardly moderate) Hamas government while preaching the virtues of democracy in Iraq.
There is nothing inherently wrong with "earmarks," which the Sunlight Foundation describes as "a provision in legislation that directs funds to be spent on specific projects." But in recent years earmarking has become a symbol of the culture of corruption in Washington, used and abused by crooked politicians like Duke Cunningham and Conrad Burns to benefit wealthy benefactors.
The mainstream media is starting to pay attention to Fred Thompson's decades-long gig as a well-heeled Washington lobbyist. His client list has been noted in this space and elsewhere. What Thompson actually did for one of these clients, the British insurance firm Equitas Ltd, was fleshed out in a must-read column by the Washington Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum today.
Corporate and CEO profits are at an all-time high. The richest 1 percent in America posses the wealth of the bottom 95 percent combined. Companies deploy hundreds of lobbyists and spend millions of dollars courting members of Congress to win legislative favors. The presidential election in '08 promises to be the priciest in history, largely underwritten by big business and top dollar donors.
Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, is becoming a liability for her campaign. Following the publication of The Nation's article, Hillary Inc., the heads of two large unions wrote a letter to Clinton, first noted in the New York Times this week, expressing their displeasure that Penn's PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, was helping corporations block union organizing drives, including one their unions were involved in at Cintas, a highly profitable uniform and laundry supply company.