Saturday, November 11, 2006

Here's a Chilling Case Study
Of How Rising Political Stars
Get Co-Opted by Contributors

All the hoopla over Barack Obama, supposedly the great new hope to reclaim our national political virtue, seems more than a little tiresome. Mostly, it reminds me of our political naivete, of our constant hungering for something new, as if simple charisma can fix our national problems. If only it was so easy.

Against that backdrop, I thought Harper's Magazine had an especially timely and illuminating cover story this month, on how Obama may already have been subtly co-opted by Washington's K Street lobbying culture. It nicely describes how well-oiled corporate interests weave money webs around promising political stars that make it all but impossible for them to participate in reform, ultimately rendering them politically impotent. Since Harper's is perhaps the least web-friendly of the major American magazines, the piece is not online (though the author does address subsequent complaints about the piece from the Senator's staff
here). So I bring you this crucial passage, in hopes that you'll hunt down a copy of the November issue on a newstand or a library and read the entire thing.

It is startling to see how quickly Obama's senatorship has been woven into the web of institutionalized influence-trading that afflicts official Washington. He quickly established a political machine funded by and run by a standard Beltway group of lobbyists, PR consultants and hangers-on. For the staff post of policy director, he hired Karen Kornbluh, a senior aide to Robert Rubin when the latter, as head of the Treasury Department under Bill Clinton, was a chief advocate for NAFTA and other free-trade policies that decimated the nation's manufacturing sector (and the organized labor wing of the Democratic party). Obama's top contributors are corporate law and lobbying firms (Kirkland & Ellis and Skadden, Arps, where four attorneys are fundraisers for Obama as well as donors), Wall Street financial houses (Goldman, Sachs & JPMorgan Chase) and big Chicago interests (Henry Crown & Co., an investment firm that has stakes in industries ranging from telecom to defense)...The question, though, is just how effective--let alone reformist--Obama's approach can be in a Washington grown hostile to reform and those who advocate it. After a quarter century when the Democratic Party to which he belongs has moved steadily to the right and the political system in general has become thoroughly dominated by the corporate perspective, the first requirement of electoral success is now the ability to raise staggering sums of money. For Barack Obama, this means that mounting a successful career, especially one that may include a run for the presidency, cannot even be attempted without the kind of compromising and horse-trading thatmay, in fact, render him impotent.


At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Jim Kenny said...

Great insight. The last sentence condemns not only Obama but anyone else who runs for high office. I recognize the reality, but I refuse to be that cynical. Just as light itself, the powers of change are all around us. We just need a political candidate who can focus these powers, just as a mangnified glass can combine light.

At 11:48 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Well said, Jim. I think you get it precisely right on how none of this is exactly a surprise--the reality part--but how we should nevertheless fall into the trap of accepting it all as inevitable. Especially when, as in this case, a candidate is being referred to as qualitatively different, and a breath of fresh air from the stale politics of old.

At 11:48 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

What I meant to say, of course, is that we should NOT fall into that trap...


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