Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Pandermania and Hillary-hunting

The Democrats sure know how to stage a pander festival. Last night’s presidential candidate forum, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, was a veritable clinic. Any second, I was expecting everybody to shed their Washington threads and reveal their solidarity T-shirts, but they managed to confine themselves to bursts of competitive rhetoric. Hillary Clinton boasted that she is the New York AFL-CIO’s favorite “sister,” whereupon Barack Obama essentially said: Oh yeah, well, I happen to have done lots of great work with Illinois labor. Meanwhile, John Edwards boasted that he has walked on 200 picket lines during the past two years, whereupon Joe Biden essentially said: Oh yeah, well, I’ve been walking picket lines for the past 34 years.

And so on. Far more interesting was the insider-versus-outsider dynamic. Clearly, Obama and Edwards – both trailing badly in national Democratic polls – feel compelled to hammer the frontrunner as a status quo establishment toady. In the hopes of attracting the grassroots labor resources that might help them slow Hillary’s march through the early primaries (a greater imperative for the relatively cash-strapped Edwards), they’re willing to reopen the old party wounds of the early ‘90s, an era when labor and liberal activists widely perceived Hillary and Bill Clinton as sell-outs who were too close to Wall Street.

Edwards said, “We don’t want to exchange one group of insiders (the GOP regime) for another group of insiders (Hillary and the Democratic establishment).” He assailed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has hurt domestic working people, reminding the 15,000 labor people in the audience that “this deal was negotiated by Washington insiders, not by anybody in this stadium tonight” – which was a polite way of pointing out that Bill Clinton’s administration pushed for NAFTA and Bill signed it. (When Hillary had earlier acknowledged that “broad reform” was needed to fix NAFTA, she of course neglected to mention that her husband had signed it.) Edwards also assailed Hillary for making the July 9 cover of Fortune magazine, and told the labor folks that “the one thing you can count on is you will never see a picture of me on the front of Fortune Magazine saying, ‘I am the candidate that big corporate America is betting on.’”

Obama - whose aides like to point out that even when the Clintons had a Democratic Congress in 1993 and 1994, they failed to enact health care reform – went on repeated jags last night about “Washington insiders,” using that as a synonym for Democrats (like Hillary) who have failed to advance liberal/progressive issues and have fatally compromised with Republicans (especially on Iraq).

Obama played the card during yet another dustup over his recent speech calling for the possibility of U.S. military strikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan. After second-tier candidate Chris Dodd rebuked him for making an “irresponsible” proposal that would only serve to further destabilize Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf, Obama – perhaps hoping that Hillary would not pile on – retaliated with a preemptive strike at the first tier:

“I find it amusing that those who helped authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster of our generation are now criticizing me for making sure that we are on the right battlefield and not the wrong battlefield in the war on terror.”

I got the feeling that he came to the forum armed with that line, and was poised to launch it at the first opportunity. But two can play that game. The ever-prepared frontrunner lashed back with a critique that was surely designed to suggest that outsider is a synonym for inexperienced and naive.

After elaborating on Dodd’s warning about destabilizing Musharraf, she sought to smack Obama across the mouth: “You can think big, but remember, you shouldn’t say everything you think if you’re running for president, because it has consequences across the world. And we don’t need that right now.” (At this point, the audience booed – perhaps because this was Chicago and Obama had home-field advantage. Or perhaps because, at that moment, she seemed to be echoing Bush administration warnings about how Democratic dissent aids the terrorists.)

I suspect it was the latter, given the way Obama was cheered when he replied, “We’re debating the most important foreign policy issues that we face, and the American people have a right to know. It is not just Washington insiders that are part of the debate that has to take place, with respect to how we’re going to shift our foreign policy.”

Edwards mostly stayed out of the Pakistan fight. He preferred to pick a new fight with Hillary over the lobbyist issue - perhaps to his own detriment.

Last weekend (as I mentioned yesterday), Hillary told an audience of liberal bloggers that she would continue to accept campaign contributions from Washington lobbyists, all of whom “represent real people,” everyone from nurses and social service workers to employes of big corporations. Edwards was again in high dudgeon last night, because he doesn’t take any campaign money from lobbyists (he does take money from employes of the hedge fund where he earned $479,000 in salary after leaving the Senate, but never mind). Again seeking to paint Hillary as an establishment sellout, he said that all candidates “should be saying no to lobbyist money in Washington, D.C.”

But he ran into trouble when he pushed his argument too far. It was pointed out to him that rich trial lawyers (aiding one of their own) contribute heavily to his campaign, and then he was asked why that’s any different from taking lobbyist contributions. He then sought to draw a distinction between the rules governing lawyer conduct and the rules governing lobbyist conduct: “When lawyers give money to the jury who are making the decisions, that’s called a bribe. When lobbyists go to members of Congress and give money to them, that’s called politics.”

Much audible grumbling in the audience. The labor activists didn’t like that line, not one bit. And here’s why:

Organized labor does a lot of lobbying.

When labor lobbyists ply their trade, they don’t consider that to be “politics” in any bad sense. They consider themselves to be engaged in buttonholing senators and congressmen for the betterment of mankind. Indeed, between 1998 and 2005, organized labor’s lobbying expenditures totaled $265,639,714. (Far less than the corporate tab, but still significant.) Last year alone, labor’s lobbying tab was $30 million. One of the jobs of a labor lobbyist is to ensure that they get satisfactory results from the Democrats who benefited, in the previous election, from labor’s campaign contributions.

Labor doesn’t mind a bit of demagoguery, but it also wants to win. Hillary’s reputation as a seasoned partisan may well be enough to at least thwart a labor stampede to the less seasoned “outsiders.” Hence, this Hillary remark last night, a line that was clearly well-crafted in advance:

“For 15 years I have stood up against the right-wing machine, and I’ve come out stronger. So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I’m your girl.”

Girl?...Clearly, we have entered the post-feminist era.