John Kerry and special interests--an interesting perspective
Article makes some good points. After all, Sierra Club and Greenpeace can be considered "special interests" too.
Republicans call John Kerry a hypocrite for vowing to cleanse the White House of special interests. They make three arguments. The first is very weak. The second is pretty weak. The third is strong, but it contradicts the first two.
The first argument is the simplest: Kerry takes money from special interests, too. Last week, the Bush campaign released a Web video titled "Unprincipled, Chapter 1." Kerry, the video charged, takes "more special interest money than any other senator." That's based on a January 31 Washington Post story, which noted that Kerry "has raised more money from paid lobbyists than any other senator over the past 15 years."
But the Post figure is misleading because it ignores the fact that Kerry has largely eschewed money from political action committees (PACs), a major source of funds for most of his colleagues. When you combine money from paid lobbyists and PACs--which makes sense, since they're both conduits for "special interests"--Kerry actually ranks ninety-second out of 100 U.S. senators. That doesn't make him pure, but it makes him purer than most serious candidates for the White House. And it puts him on a different planet from President Bush, who accepted more money from lobbyists last year alone than Kerry has in the last 15.
The second argument is that Kerry is a hypocrite not just because he has received money from special interests but because he has repaid them with favors. In a February 7 column, New York Times columnist David Brooks noted that Kerry urged the Securities and Exchange Commission to help a woman with ties to the Chinese military list her company on the U.S. stock exchange--and got a fund-raiser in return. Brooks says Kerry also supported a contracting loophole for the insurance company American International Group, which repaid him with donations. The Post, ABC News, and the Center for Public Integrity have cited similar stories.
Let's stipulate that Kerry has occasionally helped out his financial backers--sometimes at the public's expense. Brooks says this makes Kerry's attack on special interests "phony." But virtually every governor or member of Congress--which is to say, virtually every presidential candidate--has raised money from people with an interest in legislation and at some time or another has written a letter, or voted for a bill, on their behalf. In the 2000 GOP primary, Bush even argued that anti-special interest crusader John McCain was tainted by "all those fund-raisers with lobbyists" he had held during his years in the Senate. And Bush was partially right.
By defining special interest influence so broadly that it encompasses any person who could realistically seek the presidency, Bush's defenders erase any distinction between the president and his critics. But some politicians serve special interests more than others. And there are ways, however crude, to measure that. For most industries seeking subsidies, tax loopholes, or regulatory exemptions, there are watchdog groups trying to stop them. For example, when politicians do favors for oil, mining, or timber companies, environmental organizations usually object. When they do favors for pharmaceutical or telecommunication companies, consumer groups object. These organizations may not always espouse the right policies, but they are a good barometer of how beholden a politician is to corporate special interests.
As it happens, they don't consider Bush and Kerry to be equally corrupted. Kerry's lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters is 96 percent. By contrast, the League gave Bush its first ever "F." Gene Kimmelman, senior director of public policy and advocacy for the nonpartisan Consumers Union, chides Kerry for not aggressively supporting competition between cable companies (telecommunication firms are among Kerry's biggest funders). But he says that, "overall, he's been a strong consumer champion." The nonpartisan Consumer Federation gave Kerry a lifetime rating of 85. As for Bush, Kimmelman says his "administration has bestowed enormous benefits on the largest corporate entities at the expense of consumers' safety and pocketbooks."
But why aren't environmental and consumer groups themselves special interests? The third critique of Kerry is that his definition of special interests excludes those that support him. In a February 15 column titled "THE 1ST 28 QUESTIONS FOR KERRY," George Will wrote, "Other than denoting your disapproval, what does the adjective mean in the phrase 'special interest'? Is the National Education Association a special interest? The AFL-CIO? ... Is the National Rifle Association a 'special interest'? Is 'special' a synonym for 'conservative'?"
Will makes a good point. When Kerry refers to special interests, he is clearly referring to corporations. As he said on the night he won the Iowa caucuses, "I'm running to free our government from the grip of the lobbyists, the drug industry, big oil, and the HMOs. ... I'm running so you will have a president ... who will take on the powerful special interests." Will implies that, while Kerry may be opposed to these special interests, he is indebted to other ones--in particular, environmental groups and labor unions.
But, if Will's critique is correct, Brooks's must be wrong. You can't accuse Kerry of being just as beholden as Bush to "the oil companies, the HMOs, and the drug companies" (Brooks's words) and simultaneously accuse him of being beholden to the environmental, consumer, and labor groups that oppose those companies. The truth is that Bush, like most Republicans, is more influenced by corporate "special interests," and Kerry, like most Democrats, is more influenced by noncorporate "special interests."
You can argue that Kerry's selective use of the term is fair. After all, if an interest is "special" because it is narrow, then Bush's backers deserve the term more than Kerry's, since big companies represent a narrower group of people than labor, environmental, or consumer groups. (There are exceptions: The GOP-leaning National Rifle Association and Christian Coalition have broader memberships than the Democratic-leaning trial lawyers.)
But, ultimately, the semantics don't really matter. Rather than screaming about who is more indebted to special interests, the Kerry and Bush campaigns should simply admit that they have ties to different ones and defend their associations. The president, I suspect, would have the harder time.
Peter Beinart is the editor of TNR.
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