I rise to defend Howard Dean and Wesley Clark - two Washington outsiders sinking fast in the Democratic presidential race - on the matter of negative campaigning. Dean recently hammered John Kerry, the front-runner, for being as much a candidate of special interests as any Republican. That's quite a stretch, but the fact is Kerry has not been the scourge of special interests his campaign rhetoric suggests.
Clark, meanwhile, has reminded voters that Kerry and John Edwards, this year's best class warrior, voted for several Bush initiatives - the Iraq war, the Patriot Act and the No Child Left Behind education bill - they are denouncing in the presidential campaign. Clark, the retired Army general from Arkansas, thinks he smells hypocrisy.
The Kerry and Edwards camps call this negative campaigning. I say there's nothing negative in holding candidates accountable for what they have said and done. If anything, we need more negative campaigning and less spinning and pandering in presidential politics. What's wrong with Clark saying Kerry and Edwards owe the voters an explanation? I'm sure they have one, although I haven't heard it yet.
"This is the kind of petty sniping that people are sick of," Edwards said, in dismissing Clark.
Is it "petty sniping" to ask Edwards about his Senate voting record?
Clark also accused Edwards, a first-term U.S. senator from North Carolina, of voting against the interests of veterans. He said Edwards was the only Democratic senator in 1999 who voted against "closing corporate tax loopholes to prevent across-the-board cuts to veterans health care."
Veterans probably would like an explanation, but they're not likely to get one. You see, Edwards, who prides himself on running a "positive" campaign, is too busy telling voters how he's going to drive the lobbyists and special interests out of Washington and create "one America."
Democrats have been unrelenting in attacking President Bush for putting the interests of powerful corporations ahead of the interests of working people. They've got a good case. Under the Bush administration, we have a government of, by and for special interests. The Democrats plan to make that a major theme of the fall campaign. They should be careful not to come across as too sanctimonious, because Democrats are also known to coddle special interests (see Clinton-Gore administration) in exchange for campaign money.
Kerry bristled when Howard Dean recently charged that the Massachusetts Democrat has been one of the Senate's leading recipients of special-interest money. It may come as a shock to some of his supporters that John Kerry is not above doing favors for corporate interests and then taking their money. Can it be true that lobbyists for special interests have left his office without the door hitting them in the back on their way out?
Last week, the Associated Press reported that Kerry blocked legislation "to close a loophole that allowed a major insurer to divert millions of federal dollars from the nation's most expensive construction project" - Boston's "Big Dig" tunnel.
After Kerry's intervention, the AP said, "the insurer, American International Group, paid Kerry's way on a trip to Vermont and donated at least $30,000 to a tax-exempt group Kerry used to set up his presidential campaign. Company executives donated $18,000 to his Senate and presidential campaigns."
Kerry said there was no connection between the money and the favor that cost taxpayers $150-million.
Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, isn't buying Kerry's line. He told the AP: "The idea that Kerry has not helped or benefited from a specific special interest, which he has said, is utterly absurd. Anyone who gets millions of dollars over time, and thousands of dollars from specific donors, knows there's a symbiotic relationship. He needs the donors' money. The donors need favors. Welcome to Washington. That's how it works."
Oh yes. The AP also reported that "at least three times in his Senate career, (Kerry) has recommended individuals for positions at federal home loan banks just before or after receiving political contributions from the nominees."
Edwards, meanwhile, needs to clean up his own act. The former trial lawyer is the only major presidential candidate - including George W. Bush - who has refused to disclose the names of his biggest contributors - the donors who can afford to write $2,000 checks and bundle even larger amounts for their candidate. Edwards has collected a bigger portion of his donations in the form of $2,000 checks, the maximum allowed for individual donors, than any of the other Democratic candidates - 65 percent. And most of these big checks were written by fellow trial lawyers.
"I have never taken a dime from Washington lobbyists and I never will," he tells his audiences. "I will be your president, not theirs."
What is beyond dispute is that trial lawyers are a special interest and one of the Democratic Party's biggest donor groups. They spend millions of dollars employing Washington lobbyists and making campaign donations to fight legislation that would cap malpractice damages and limit class-action lawsuits.
Edwards insults the voters' intelligence when he suggests that candidates are beholden to lobbyists who write big checks but not to trial lawyers who write even bigger checks. Would Edwards please explain why trial lawyers are not a special interest?