By Stuart Rothenberg
“I realize that there are those who simply don’t believe Washington can bring about this change. And the odds are long. It’s failed too many times. There are too many special interests and entrenched lobbyists invested in the status quo. ... I didn’t come to Washington to take the easy route, or to work for the powerful and the well-connected interests who have run this city for too long. I came here to work for the American people.”For somebody who wants to break the old political mold, Obama certainly continues to rely on some trite rhetoric.President Barack Obama
March 2, 2009
When I read the president’s remarks (see above) prior to his introducing his newest selection for secretary of Health and Human Services, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), I wasn’t reading anything I hadn’t read before. Politicians always say they are battling the special interests, whom they invariably associate with their opponents.
Indeed, more than 25 years ago, on Oct. 11, 1983, the Washington Post editorialized: “‘Special interests’ has become a central issue in the contest for the Democratic nomination, and President [Ronald] Reagan will surely make it an issue if he faces Mr. [Walter] Mondale in the general election.”
There are so many examples of attacks on special interests and lobbyists over the years that it’s hard to select only a few examples.
Here’s one from the Washington Post, Jan. 31, 2004: “[John] Kerry, who did not begin his campaign with a heavy emphasis on fighting lobbyists, appears to have usurped the special interest message from [John] Edwards and [Howard] Dean over the past few months. Now, Kerry’s standard campaign refrain includes this warning to the ‘special interests’ and their lobbyists: ‘We’re coming, you’re going and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’”
And another from the Boston Globe, Feb. 1, 2004: “Howard Dean, bolstered by a Marine Corps general and a newspaper article questioning Senator John F. Kerry’s links to special interests, yesterday lam basted the Democratic front-runner as a ‘special-interest clone.’”
During a campaign, even Democrats accuse other Democrats of being too close to special interests. But the special interest charge is most often used by politicians in one party against politicians in the other party.
For example, from the Hartford Courant, July 12, 2000: “Monday, [Vice President Al] Gore came to New Britain with a new national message, that he would ‘fight for the people, not the powerful,’ pledging to lead the fight against special interests.”
Let’s not forget this one from the Washington Post, Sept. 2, 1992: “Sensitive to the danger that defending government programs before groups with whom they are popular might leave him open to charges that he is an old-fashioned Democrat responsive to special interest groups, [Bill] Clinton said [President George H.W.] Bush, not he, was the candidate of ‘special interests.’”
When it comes to special interests, the best defense apparently is a good offense. When someone attacks you as a tool of special interests, just turn the attack around — even if you are one of the special interests.
Consider this one from the New York Times, Jan. 28, 1984: “In a blunt, free-wheeling response to Mr. Reagan’s criticism that Democratic candidates were trying to ‘buy support’ with promises to special interests, Mr. Mondale said, ‘Nobody has served the wealthy and powerful special interests with more devotion for more years than Mr. Reagan.’”
Or this doozy from Sept. 5, 1980, in the New York Times: “Lane Kirkland, the president of the [AFL-CIO], said in urging the endorsement of the President: ‘Unlike President [Jimmy] Carter, Ronald Reagan is the captive of some of the most narrow special interests in this nation, and they are not about to let him go.”
Remember, this most recent dose of anti-special interest rhetoric comes from a president who is going to bring all of us together — unless of course, you are part of one of the powerful special interests with entrenched lobbyists.
Let’s see, who exactly does that special interest label include? The National Education Association? The National Endowment for the Arts? The AFL-CIO? Planned Parenthood? AARP? General Motors?
The president ought to know that we are a nation of special interests and that his stimulus package and budget reward certain interests and penalize others, sometimes in the same sector of the economy.
Southern agricultural interests are often at odds with Midwest agricultural interests, just as physicians and hospitals are often at odds even though both are involved in health care. Wind power surely is as much a special interest as the large oil and gas companies.
Obama is using the same bogeyman scare tactics that other politicians have used, dividing when it serves his purposes and talking about bringing Americans together when he thinks it will benefit him and his agenda.
The special interest argument is used so often by politicians and their press folks because it is effective. Many voters, after all, are easily manipulated. But it’s still demagoguery, and it should be called such — especially when it comes from a man, and an administration, that spends so much time talking about bringing all Americans together and changing the way things have been done.
This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 9, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.