It was nearly an hour into the candidate forum at YearlyKos, an annual convention of liberal bloggers, when John Edwards finally decided to go for the jugular. Chopping the air with his hand, bobbing his head like a racehorse, the former senator from North Carolina challenged Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to turn down donations from lobbyists.
"No more, from this day forward, not a dime from a Washington lobbyist," Edwards roared. "We do not want their money! Their money is no good to us!"
That got a rowdy standing ovation, but Clinton waved it away. "I don't think," she said dismissively, "that based on my 35 years of fighting for what I believe in, that I'm going to be influenced by some lobbyist." A groaning jeer rose up from the crowd.
"A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans," Clinton continued. "They actually do. They represent nurses; they represent social workers. Yes, they represent corporations that employ a lot of people."
Clinton tried to soft-pedal that last bit about corporations, using the same tone of voice her husband would use when admitting what his brother Roger was up to. It didn't save her: The political press was agog at her gaffe. The Politico's Ben Smith reported that rival candidate Barack Obama's campaign team had joked "about how quickly they would be able to turn her words into a television ad." Pollster Scott Rasmussen recorded a drop in Clinton's lead in his weekly tracking reports, and he pointed to her lobbyists-need-love moment as the reason.
"Hillary's comment sounded so odd because Democrats don't talk like that," says Robert Bauer, a D.C. lawyer who counts lobbyists on his client list. (He has advised Barack Obama, but his comments do not represent the senator's campaign.) "It's like someone from the Moral Majority talking about atheists and saying, 'Oh, they're not really pagans; they're not so evil. Maybe atheists have a place in society.'?"
John Edwards' rhetoric about lobbyists is as Manichean as anything Jerry Falwell ever sermonized. But try to imagine a government the size Edward envisions—socialized health care, subsidized college tuition—without lobbyists. New government programs breed lobbyists, and for good reasons. People who might be affected by the new programs want to get into the rooms where those programs are devised. And if money is being doled out, they want a place at the front of the line.
Edwards argues that businesses, interest groups, and even public-sector lobbyists shouldn't be able to influence presidential candidates. He has called for reforms that would end private financing of elections and legislation that would curtail lobbying activity. Lobbyists would get in the way of the "bold, transformative change" the candidate wants to push through Congress. Edwards doesn't want to have to deal with the people who would be affected by those changes. He wants to dictate terms.
Edwards wasn't done grandstanding once the Kos crowd went home. He followed his performance with an open letter to Clinton and Obama demanding that they cut off lobbyists and refuse their donations. The front-runners ignored him. Then Edwards knocked Obama for proposing a law that would merely make lobbyist activity more transparent and records more available. The bill was "an important first step," Edwards granted. But "letting people watch the money game as it's being played simply isn't enough—we need to put an end to the money game altogether."
You can see how Edwards won huge jury awards when he was a trial lawyer. His smooth talk obscures an illiberal idea and allows him to pitch that idea to some of the people most invested in the lobbying system. At YearlyKos, he turned to an audience that included plenty of union members—an audience that, just 24 hours earlier, had attended a luncheon at which Service Employees International Union head Andy Stern spoke—and asked, "How many of you have your own Washington lobbyist?"
"That spoke to his own ignorance," sniffs Jan Beron, a lawyer who has worked for Republicans and private-sector lobbyists. "Who had a lobbyist? They all did! The AFL-CIO was in that room, for God's sake. When I get questions about who represents the little guy, I say, well, how about the AARP?"
Whether lobbyists are there for the little guy or not, they multiply when government programs appear on the horizon. In 1998 the health care industry spent $204 million (in current dollars) on lobbying.
The next year, as both houses of Congress debated a "patient's bill of rights" for health care, the spending rose to $230 million. In 2003, the year of the vast Medicare Part D expansion, the sum reached $304 million. That surge in spending was meant to ensure that various companies got friendly treatment, or at least benign neglect, under the final bill. But it was also the only way members of a multibillion-dollar industry could influence legislation that would affect them for decades. You can decry the outcome, but to restrict citizens' access to the people crafting the bill would be even worse.
Not all lobbying reform impinges on First Amendment rights. But honest reform would be less concerned with limiting people's access to government and more concerned with limiting the amount of government there is for them to fight over. No Democratic candidate is proposing that—certainly not Edwards.
In practice, even Democrats who slam lobbyists rarely try to shut them out altogether. Edwards has vigorously sought support and endorsements from unions, and he hasn't talked about cutting off their lobbying activity, much less turning down their donations. (That goes double for the trial lawyers' lobby.) The Democrats aren't exactly eager to end the money game; they just want to shape the rules to their advantage.
Take the lobbying reform the House of Representatives passed before the August recess, which later failed in the Senate. Its strictures didn't affect lobbyists who worked for the public sector (which would include some union lobbyists) or for universities and cities. It would have allowed the University of California system to nudge congressmen with gifts but barred the private University of Southern California from doing so.
This despite the fact that the crooked ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the man whose crimes inspired the latest anti-lobbying crusade, took advantage of the relatively weak rules governing public-sector lobbying in his campaign to bribe Republican and Democratic power brokers. Abramoff mostly gave to Republicans, but public-sector lobbying usually comes from people favorable to Democrats.
In the system we have, there's nothing illegal about that. The City of San Diego has as much of a right to sweet-talk or browbeat senators as Exxon or Home Depot does. Any special interest, in the public sector or the private, understands the direct relationship between government spending, which Democrats tend to favor, and the lobbying game, which they pretend to hate. Lobbyists have grown accustomed to anti–K Street campaign rhetoric, and they've grown accustomed to the weak, contradictory reforms that occasionally arrive afterward.
If history is any guide, Edwards' rhetoric translated into practice would look like the lopsided changes the Democrats already have begun to pursue. If that's the case, the "change" candidate is promising the same kind of slanted lobbying reform—tough on interests Democrats don't like, easy on those they do—that Clinton supports. It's the same result with added hypocrisy.
"A lot of this rhetoric about lobbying groups," says Jan Beron, "is just an attack against people who take contrary views." It's an attack on First Amendment rights couched as a defense of Americans' freedoms. Unless Democrats pledge never again to expand a government program or take advice from their good friends at the National Education Association, their attacks on lobbyists will just be an attempt to muzzle the other side.
David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.