The Corner

Obama’s Nondifferential Distinction

Barack Obama is the candidate of the moment — and I don’t mean that in a good way. He’s the candidate of the trendy, the easy answer, the NPR-segment-at-22-past-the-hour. He’s pretty and fluffy, like a cloud. Clouds blow away.

You can see this in Obama’s anti-lobbyist pose. Because journalists and self-appointed reformers prefer to pretend that big-time lobbyists are the reason that “nothing gets done in Washington,” rather than understanding and grappling with the existence of real and intractable differences of opinion among large blocs of American voters, they are always fascinated by the role of lobbyists in campaigns and legislation. That doesn’t mean that special-interest lobbying deserves little scrutiny — it’s a significant source of cost to taxpayers and corruption — but the problem lies primarily in the excessive size of government in the first place, not the constitutional rights to speak and to petition the government. Its explanations lie in public-choice economics and the sociology of political ideology, not simply in the finances of campaigns.

Those whose livelihoods are based on or threatened by federal decisions will inevitably play a major role in financing federal campaigns, whether they are allowed to directly and on the books or must instead participate via back channels and independent expenditures of various sorts. In Obama’s case, he announced that he wouldn’t take money for his presidential campaign from registered lobbyists of the federal government, but the policy is about staking a claim to moral authority, not about actually excluding interested donors:

While pledging to turn down donations from lobbyists themselves, Sen. Barack Obama raised more than $1 million in the first three months of his presidential campaign from law firms and companies that have major lobbying operations in the nation’s capital.

Portraying himself as a new- style politician determined to reform Washington, D.C., Obama makes his policy clear in fundraising invitations, stating he takes no donations from “federal lobbyists.” His aides announced last week he was returning $43,000 to lobbyists who donated to his campaign.

But the Illinois Democrat’s policy of shunning money from lobbyists registered to do business on Capitol Hill does not extend to lawyers whose partners lobby there. Nor does the ban apply to corporations that have major lobby operations in Washington. And the prohibition does not extend to lobbyists who ply their trade in state capitals including Springfield, Ill., and Tallahassee, Fla., although some deal with national clients and issues.

“Clearly, the distinction is not that significant,” said Stephen Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on campaign issues. “He gets an asterisk that says he is trying to be different. But overall, the same wealthy interests are funding his campaign as are funding other candidates, whether or not they are lobbyists.”

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