Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Debate's Missed Opportunity for a Real Hit Job

Thanks in part to a still common reliance on ‘rabbit ears,’ record numbers of viewers tuned in to the ABC News Democratic Presidential debate this past Wednesday night.

What they witnessed was Barack Obama fumble and Hillary Clinton stretch, under the pressure of trivial irrelevance during the first portion of a live prime time meet up, and the viewing experience left many clearly upset.

What many appeared to be most miffed about was the unusual barrage of seemingly un-important salvos leveled by moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos at Senator Barack Obama.

The truth is, voters should be upset, because if the moderators were looking to perform some sort of hit job on Senator Obama, they could have at least attempted to aim above the belt and attack issues of substance and relevance.

Folks are really not so concerned over whether Obama attended a fund raiser at the home of a 60’s radical or whether his church was friendly with Louis Farakhan. Those juicy tidbits might make for a great shrill headline or a slimy Republican attack ad.

Voters with real concerns might rather know, if for instance, special and corporate interests are looking to curry favor in a future Obama or Clinton administration

In Obama’s case, why not take a closer look at campaign finance money trails and confront the highly promoted “agent of change” about his financially cozy relationships with Washington insiders and corporate influence peddlers?

After all, its those well moneyed players who might someday seek to influence policy that could potentially impact day to day lives across the nation.

During the ABC debate, Obama said “I believe that change does not happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up.”

He went on to say “that’s why we decided we weren’t going to take PAC money or money from federal registered lobbyists, that we were not going to be subject to special interest influence, but instead we were going to enlist the American people in a project of changing this country” Obama said Wednesday on ABC.

But despite the drum beat of that message, according to an April 11, 2008 article by Matthew Mosk and Alec MacGillis of the “The Washington Post,” “wealth and power also played have also played a critical role in creating Obama’s fundraising machine, and their generosity has earned them a prominent voice in shaping his campaign.”

According to the “Post” article, a large portion of Obama’s campaign money has come from seventy nine “bundlers” who helped recruit more than 27 thousand donors to write checks for $2,300, the maximum allowed. The “Post” reported that donors who have given more than $200 account for about half of Obama’s total haul of $240 million.

According to the non partisan group Public Citizen, Bundling describes the activity of fundraisers who pool a large number of campaign contributions from political action committees (PACs) and individuals. Bundlers, who are often corporate CEOs, lobbyists, hedge fund managers or independently wealthy people, are able to funnel far more money to campaigns than they could personally give under campaign finance laws.
The “Washington Post” article says that in Obama’s case, the list of bundlers includes traditional Democratic givers like trial lawyers and also includes partners from 18 top law firms, 21 Wall Street executives and power brokers from Fortune 500 companies.

The bundling groups include businessmen like billionaire Kenneth Griffin who started backing Obama just as he hired a team of lobbyist to urge Congress to preserve a “lucrative tax loophole,” according to the “Washington Post.”

Also on the list, a billionaire casino developer who plans to put a slot parlor in Philadelphia, this, despite Obama’s reported opposition to gambling, according to the “Washington Post.”

Mosk and MacGillis also report that big Obama bundlers include the director of General Dynamics, a military supplier that has seen profits soar since the onset of the Iraq War and has benefited from at least one Obama earmark, according to the Post.

Another revealing peak at Obama’s powerful fundraisers had come earlier in a February 3, “New York Times” article by Mike McIntire. The “Times” reported that Exelon Corporation, the nation’s largest nuclear plant operator is in fact, one of Obama’s largest campaign donors.

That piece noted that Exelon chairman John W. Rowe has been an Obama donor and is also chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry’s largest lobbying group.

The “Times” article did not mention that Exelon chairman Rowe, like several other powerful energy power players also sits on the influential, right wing and neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute's Board, an organization some have called an early and leading voice for regime change in Iraq through military action.

According to a January 2008 article in the “Baltimore Sun” last year Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan accused Exelon and another company of overpricing electricity to achieve "a massive transfer of money" from consumers.

In the end, Exelon agreed to pay an $800 million settlement.

Further evidence for concern came in a recent “USA Today” report by Ken Dilianian that noted lobbyist representing some of America’s most powerful corporate interests have been major players in Obama’s fundraising apparatus with some members even serving as advisers on his campaign.

That report said that the campaign has received $2.26 million from employees of ten former federal lobbyists.

The “USA Today” report said that those former lobbyist’s law firms were paid “$138 million last year to lobby the federal government” according to the article.

This again, despite a common Obama boast, that he is the “only candidate who isn’t taking a dime from Washington lobbyist.”

In recent months, the Clinton campaign, referring to the Exelon influence, charged that Senator Obama had allowed the nuclear industry to water down a 2006 bill regulating the nuclear power industry.

That charge was met by Obama campaign spokesperson Bill Burton rebutting that his campaign “does not need any lectures on special interests from the candidate who’s taken more money from Washington lobbyists than any Republican running from President.”

Glass Houses aside, if there were ever a vetting hit job that needed to be done, Charlie and George failed on that point since those Democrats with doubts about Obama often point to these charges of influence by well moneyed insiders, even energy powerhouses like Exelon, as a point of concern for anyone that’s thinking about throwing political support behind a very pronounced message of change in Washington’s influence laden landscape.

Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a non partisan think tank told “USA Today” that “it makes no difference whether the person is a registered lobbyist, if the person is raising money to get access or curry favor.”

And, as Ken Silverstein’s November, 2006 “Harpers” article, “The Making of a Washington Machine” noted when he quoted an anonymous lobbyist who said, “big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a player.”

“What’s the value of a starry eyed idealist,” the lobbyist said according to “Harpers.”

So, how much influence might those looking to impact policy expect to exert if Obama makes his way to the White House?

It is, after all, the toxic culture of special interest and corporate influence in Washington that the Obama campaign has built so much of its foundation on during its crusade to take the White House.

Still, who can blame voters for their own often shrill attacks on those who profess to doubt the Obama message? They, like millions of voters are desperate for a political savior to help rectify all these years of inflicted political misery administered by the current secretive and tight lipped White House that has contributed to so much heartache and disparity.

But, the reality is, there are still questions, there are still doubts, all any observer need do is look at the divided polling numbers and infighting among Democrats.

Yes, it is important that our candidates are grilled on the hot seat during debates but the hope was, and perhaps still is, that the coals producing the heat, will eventually stoke up the fire, and ask controversial questions of relevance, not controversial questions of muck. And, it is then, that voters can make a truly informed decision on who it is they can believe in to make that necessary change.

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