When he is on the stump, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) routinely blasts the K Street crowd. This week, in an opinion piece calling for lobbyist-bundled campaign money to be made public, Obama wrote about the “powerful special interests” that “run” Washington, D.C. And he has worked to keep his distance from those interests by refusing to accept campaign cash from federally registered lobbyists or political action committees.
But some of the city’s lobbyists who support Obama say he may be painting himself into a very untenable corner, and they are quietly reaching out to his campaign advisers suggesting the White House contender take a more nuanced approach when it comes to their kind.
Lobbyists are such an integral part of Washington life, and its public policy, that to shun them means the campaign could sacrifice lots of essential political ingredients as well.
“He paints them with a broad brush,” said one lobbyist rooting for Obama who, like the others, would only speak on condition of anonymity.
Another lobbyist who supports Obama’s presidential bid said Democratic lobbyists do respect his position and believe it is crafted from conviction and not from eyeing polls. But this lobbyist said they want to help Obama, who could become open to more criticism on the long road to the White House. Already opponents have accused Obama of hypocrisy for accepting money from state lobbyists and for accepting the nonfinancial help of others.
“For him, it’s not so much a nuanceable position,” said another lobbyist who supports the Illinois Democrat.
“Most people really want to help him,” yet another K Street advocate explained of his colleagues. “They are thinking further down the road, doing what lobbyists do: plan and strategize.”
As the campaign ramps up, Obama supporters say it would be perilous not to accept the guidance of veteran lobbyists. Plus, if Obama wins the Democratic nomination, he likely would receive financial backing from the Democratic National Committee, which does accept donations from federal lobbyists and PACs.
And if he keeps up the anti-K Street rhetoric, he could be missing out on some of the expertise and experience of the Democratic Party, they say. Federally registered lobbyist Craig Holman, for example, who works for the government watchdog group Public Citizen, should not get lumped into the same broad category as Jack Abramoff, the now-incarcerated lobbyist.
But perhaps these lobbyists are more eager to be plugged into the campaign than simply looking out for Obama’s interest. Holman himself gives Obama credit for trying and wants no special treatment.
“He’s doing the best he can,” Holman said of Obama’s relationship with lobbyists. “He is turning his back on one of the most lucrative sources of campaign cash. I give him very high marks, even though he’s still developing relationships with lobbyists because lobbyists tend to be well-networked. Obama has long recognized that lobbyists and campaign cash has a potentially corrupting influence over lawmakers.”
Holman acknowledged that Obama’s tough anti-lobbyist stance may in fact put even greater scrutiny on any interactions he has with lobbyists. “I know he’s working with a number of lobbyists who would like to see him elected, and they are helping organize some of the campaign events. So he does have that working relationship with some lobbyists, but I’ve got to emphasize the positive here,” he said.
Democratic lobbyist and strategist Steve Elmendorf, a supporter of Obama rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), called Obama’s anti-lobbyist pledges a “slippery slope” for a candidate.
“The problem is that when you start saying, ‘I won’t take money from lobbyists’ or ‘I won’t take money from drug interests or gambling interests’… you’re conceding that the money might have some effect on you,” Elmendorf said. “You’re better off saying, ‘I don’t care who gives me money, none of that will impact my decisions on public policy.’”
Besides, even if someone does not register to lobby, they can still have jobs that influence public policy, said The Center for Public Integrity’s Bill Hogan, who is directing the group’s The Buying of the President 2008 project.
One example is former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who works at Alston & Bird and has contributed to Obama.
“It’s awfully hard even to define a lobbyist,” Hogan said. “For example, Bob Dole essentially was a lobbyist for about five years before he took the step of actually admitting that he was a lobbyist and registering.”
But he said he gives credit to Obama for trying.
“Any candidate can change or reform the system,” he added. “Generally you shouldn’t fault somebody for trying.”
One of the lobbyists who supports Obama said he equates Obama’s position of not accepting donations from lobbyists with lobbying reform. Members may say they want to increase the regulations of lobbying, but “they’re not saying, ‘I never want to deal with them.’ That’s basically what Obama is saying.”