The Audacity of Hype
by Matthew Cooper
An inside look at how Obama's much-touted ban on campaign contributions from lobbyists has really worked.
Barack Obama was on a roll. Before a cheering crowd in Springfield, Missouri, this summer, the Democratic presidential nominee let loose with a barrage on Washington lobbyists: “So one of the things that we’ve got to do is not just change the health-care system, but we’ve also got to change our political system. And that’s why I don’t take PAC money. I don’t take money from federal registered lobbyists, because I want to answer to you when I’m in the White House. I don’t want to answer to all these fat-cat lobbyists!”
Running against the proverbial fat cats and moneyed interests is a strategy as old as politics itself. But Obama has taken the tactic to greater lengths than any presidential candidate in history. John Kerry and others declined to take money from political action committees, but Obama’s ban on contributions from all of Washington’s registered lobbyists"the thousands of people retained by corporations and other entities to push their interests with members of Congress and executive-branch officials"is a step that no party nominee has taken before. So too is his refusal to employ lobbyists on his campaign.
The strategy stretches back to the beginning of the primary campaign, when Hillary Clinton’s lead and party connections seemed insurmountable. Early on, the Illinois senator and his top aides decided that a full ban on lobbyists would allow Obama to help paint Clinton as a Washington insider. “It was smart politics,” a senior Obama campaign official told me.
It was also a new concept for the candidate. He’d had no problem accepting contributions from registered Washington lobbyists in his previous races for the Illinois statehouse, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. So now that he’s scoring political points for the ban, what impact has it actually had?
The campaign has no problem accepting money from the spouses of Washington lobbyists. A database search conducted for this column by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign-finance issues, found that more than 20 spouses of prominent Washington lobbyists have donated to the Obama campaign, including the wives of Dan Glickman, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America; Norman Brownstein, a prominent Denver-based lawyer who has lobbied for Oracle, Toshiba, and Comcast; and Stuart Pape of Patton Boggs, Washington’s foremost lobbying firm, who has lobbied for Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, and the Smokeless Tobacco Council.
The campaign accepts money from lobbyists registered in state capitals. It accepts money from partners at law firms that engage in lobbying. It accepts money from the C.E.O.’s, chairs, and officers of corporations, but not their lobbyists. Obama has received more than $627,000 in contributions from employees of Goldman Sachs, including, for example, $2,300 (the maximum contribution allowed) from the likes of managing director George Butcher. But Michael Berman, a registered lobbyist (and a former adviser to Walter Mondale), cannot give money to Obama because his firm, the Duberstein Group, has lobbied on behalf of Goldman Sachs on energy and tax issues. Aren’t such policies a little inconsistent with the ban? “Maybe,” said the senior Obama official. “But it’s important symbolism.”