Washington — Every campaign has moments when candidates substitute political preening for substance. Such an episode is unfolding now in the Democratic field, and it involves that perennial pinata, the Washington lobbyist.
John Edwards and Barack Obama won't take lobbyist money; Hillary Clinton will. Edwards, angling for attention in the purity primary, has kicked things up a notch. He is calling on all Democrats to reject lobbyist contributions, and calling on Obama to join him in that call.
"Not a dime from a Washington lobbyist," Edwards declared at the Yearly Kos convention. "Their money is no good with us."
Of course, the folks who would be most delighted with this outcome are lobbyists, the target of relentless haranguing for campaign cash. Of course, it's not going to happen: Democrats, back in partial power and desperate to keep it, aren't about to give up a dime from any (legal) source.
And, as you might have guessed from my tone, I don't think it would much matter if Democrats were to live in The World According to Edwards, who has never taken lobbyist money. Nice symbolism, perhaps, but how does it make candidates any purer to disdain checks from lobbyists while avidly vacuuming up contributions from the various industries they represent?
Edwards is no less tainted by the trial-lawyer money he scoops up by the bucketful than he would be by lobbyist contributions. Obama is no more ethical now than when he was an unknown Senate candidate dutifully calling lobbyists and asking for a check, please.
Clinton botched her initial response on this, telling the Yearly Kos-ers - they weren't skeptical enough of her already? - that lobbyists represent "real Americans," too. She refined her argument in time for Sunday's ABC debate, noting "this artificial distinction that people are trying to make: Don't take money from lobbyists, but take money from the people who employ and hire lobbyists and give them their marching orders."
Indeed, who takes money from lobbyists is the wrong question about an essential subject. Instead, voters who care - and I think voters SHOULD care - ought to ask: What is the candidate's history on campaign finance reform, lobbying and ethics rules, and open government generally? How transparent is the candidate about campaign and personal finances? What steps will he or she take to limit the influence of money during the current campaign?
On these, there are revealing differences among the Democratic front-runners.
Edwards was part of the legislative team working to pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, but lobbying and campaign reform were nowhere near the top of his agenda in the Senate.
During the 2004 campaign, Edwards gave a useful speech outlining his plan to limit lobbyists' influence. But, unlike the other Democratic candidates, he refused requests to reveal the identities of his big fundraisers. This time around, after considerable prodding, Edwards agreed to release the names of fundraisers - all his fundraisers, with no specifics about how much they had collected. His campaign argues vehemently that it should be praised for this avalanche of information, not faulted. But the candidate knows who has reeled in $1,000 and who raised $100,000. Why shouldn't voters?
Clinton has shown no zeal for or even particular interest in the issue in the Senate; nor did she while in the White House. Indeed, as her handling of the health care task force and Whitewater documents illustrate, Clinton's instinct is for secrecy, and her default position is to disclose only the minimum legally required. She consented to reveal her major fundraisers only after repeated editorial hammering - and only after all the other leading Democratic contenders had agreed.
On this issue, Obama leads the pack - I'd say PAC, but he (and Edwards) don't take their checks, either. He helped pass a far-reaching ethics and campaign finance bill in the Illinois state Senate and made the issue a priority on arriving in Washington. Much to the displeasure of his colleagues, Obama promoted an outside commission to handle Senate ethics complaints. He co-authored the lobbying reform bill awaiting President Bush's signature and pushed - again to the dismay of some colleagues - to include a provision requiring lawmakers to report the names of their lobbyist-bundlers.
He has co-sponsored bills to overhaul the presidential public financing system and public financing of Senate campaigns. It's nice to hear Clinton talk about how "we've got to move toward public financing" - Edwards backs it, too - but I don't see her name on those measures.
Obama readily agreed to identify his bundlers. Unlike Clinton and Edwards, he has released his income tax returns. Perhaps most important, Obama has pledged to take public financing for the general election if he is the Democratic nominee and his Republican opponent will do the same.
Any Democratic candidate wanting to "get the money out of American politics" (Clinton) or demonstrate that "the Democratic Party is the party of the people" (Edwards) ought to leap at this chance. The candidates' silence on Obama's public financing proposal - they'll "consider" it - has been more telling than anything they have actually said.