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Kerry & the 'Special Interest' Hit Piece

By Sam Parry
February 19, 2004

One of the new rules of modern campaign coverage is to tailor a script to each candidate and to squeeze developments into that script whatever the facts really are. In 2000, George W. Bush was the blunt straight-shooter and Al Gore was the delusional liar, even if journalists had to change Gore’s words (as with the Love Canal case, “invented the Internet,” etc.) and downplay examples of Bush deceptions.

A new case in point for Campaign 2004 is the portrayal of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as a captive of Washington “special interests.” This theme has been gaining momentum even though Kerry ranks as a leader in the Senate in supporting environmental causes and is best known for his investigations into foreign policy scandals, such as drug trafficking by CIA-backed Nicaraguan “contra” rebels, not for pushing through corporate-favored legislation.

So what gives? Is this a fair charge against the Democratic front-runner or is it another case of the news media crafting a misleading theme?

Post Article

“The Kerry as captive” theme crystallized with a breathless Washington Post page-one article on Jan. 31, which reported that, in the last 15 years, Kerry had received more campaign contributions from "paid lobbyists" than any other senator, a total of $638,358 since 1989.

The article, written by Jim VandeHei and entitled “Kerry Leads in Lobby Money: Anti-Special-Interest Campaign Contrasts With Funding,” cited figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit that collects and refines data that candidates file with the Federal Election Commission.

The Post report was quickly cited by Kerry’s Democratic rivals and became grist for a new anti-Kerry commercial by the Republican National Committee. It was reprised as a top story on NBC’s evening news on the eve of the Wisconsin primary.

But what has received almost no attention is how misleading the key elements of the story are.

The Post article, for instance, doesn’t identify the lobbyists. The Center for Responsive Politics, which was cited in the Post story, acknowledges that its data doesn’t distinguish who the lobbyists are, what they lobby for or even whether they directly lobbied Kerry on any specific policy issues.

This lack of clarity means that some of these lobbyists may be registered to lobby Congress on public-interest issues, such as the environment, abortion rights or other legislation that most Americans would tend to categorize as public-interest advocacy, not “special interest” influence peddling.

Another potential hole in the data is that there are thousands of Americans who are or at some time were registered as lobbyists, but who no longer lobby on issues before Congress. Such people could be retired or may have changed careers and moved out of Washington but they may still make political contributions.

Towering Totals

A larger fundamental flaw in the Post article is that by concentrating only on lobbyists, the Post’s tally leaves out most donations from contributors that fit the common definition of “special interests” in the minds of most people. Employees of Halliburton or Enron, for instance, would not be included in the Post’s narrow definition.

Corporate executives, who often bundle tens of thousands of dollars for a single campaign, were excluded from the Post’s tabulation because they are listed on FEC forms as executives, not lobbyists. So, perversely, the definition of “special interests” used by the Post in its piece would include an environmental lobbyist who opposes oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness and a lobbyist from a pro-choice group, while leaving out someone like Enron’s Ken Lay.

To put this omission into perspective, George Bush’s lifetime campaign contributions from Enron -- $736,800 -- eclipses by nearly $100,000 Kerry’s donations from all lobbyists over these 15 years.

Also not counted in the Post’s tabulation are donations from political action committees, which pull together donations from executives of a single company or from an entire industry and then funnel them to politicians. Kerry is among the members of Congress who has refused to accept PAC donations even while many senators raised tens of thousands of dollars from PACs.

Though the Post leaves out various sources of bundled industry money, those donations actually tower over the sums contributed by “lobbyists.” During the 15-year period, for instance, lobbyists contributed a total of $76 million to political candidates, less than one-quarter what many individual industries donated, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

By comparison, donors from the agribusiness sector contributed $311 million during this period; donors from the health-care sector poured in $460 million; the communications-and-electronics industry chipped in almost $470 million; and, the finance/insurance/real estate sector donated more than $1.2 billion, 16 times more than “lobbyists.”

Another way to put the Post’s numbers into context is to compare the total contributions for this year’s presidential campaigns to the amounts donated by “lobbyists.” Through the end of January, George Bush had raised a total of $131.8 million for his 2004 campaign, but only $842,262 of this came from lobbyists. Out of $28.2 million that John Kerry has raised for his presidential campaign, only $234,920 came from lobbyists. In both cases, lobbyist contributions add up to less than one percent of the total money raised.

The Post further prejudiced the case against Kerry by tallying donations made during a 15-year period that effectively excluded from the top recipient rankings senators who left office during that time or who came to the Senate more recently. Only 33 senators – out of 100 – have served for all of those 15 years.

During these years, Kerry has had to face reelection four times and has had to raise money in each cycle to compete in a state that ranks as the 13th largest in the country by population and boasts one of the most expensive media markets. This helps explain why Kerry’s cumulative totals over this 15-year period put him near the top of the lobbyist money even though he led this category of donations in only one two-year election cycle, his first reelection campaign in 1990.

In Kerry’s last reelection cycle in 2002, he ranked sixth among senators in accepting donations from lobbyists. Kerry trailed other Democrats, such as Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana and Tom Harkin of Iowa – each of whom comes from a much smaller state.

In addition, Kerry was only $200 ahead of #7 on the list, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. Harkin and Durbin are notable on this list because they are widely regarded as two of the most liberal U.S. senators, suggesting again that lobbyist contributions represent a mix of interests, both from industry "special interests" and from public-interest groups.

Similarly, other liberal Democratic senators – such as Hillary Clinton of New York, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California – have appeared near the top of lobbyist-contributions lists in various election cycles.

Ignored, too, is Kerry’s record of supporting many campaign finance reform measures, including serving as a cosponsor of the “Clean Money, Clean Elections” bill for voluntary public financing of federal campaigns, which was introduced by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

Finally, and most misleadingly, Kerry appears at the top of the Senate list only because the Center for Responsive Politics added the $226,450 in lobbyist contributions raised in his presidential campaign to the totals from his four Senate races. Only a handful of sitting senators have run for president, and only Bob Dole, in his 1996 campaign, raised significant lobbyist money during those campaigns.

Given the need to raise money for four statewide races in a relatively large state and his current national campaign against George Bush, it would be more surprising if Kerry weren't at or at least near the top of cumulative fundraising lists for lobbyists than the fact that he is near the top.

RNC Ad

Despite the inaccurate impression left by the Post’s figures, the article has become a major factor in “defining” Kerry. The RNC posted an Internet advertisement denouncing Kerry as “unprincipled,” a hypocrite who decries special interests on the campaign trail while taking “more special-interest money than any other senator.”

As noted above, the RNC’s charge is not exactly true – money from lobbyists is only a small subset of “special-interest money” and may not even represent “special interests” as most Americans understand the term. But, thanks largely to the Post’s hit piece, the RNC ad has garnered a lot of play and has contributed to the emerging conventional theme of Kerry as beholden to “special interests.”

In a Feb. 15 column, Post reporter Dana Milbank noted this RNC’s ad and said its contents, including the line about Kerry taking “more special-interest money than any other senator,” present the facts “accurately.” Milbank added that the RNC’s ad “fairly questions whether Kerry is disingenuous to accept money from those he would vanquish.”

While reciting this emerging storyline about Kerry, Milbank noted that Bush and the Republicans have their own hypocrisy issue on the question of campaign cash from lobbyists. “The president raised $842,262 from lobbyists in the current election cycle – almost four times the $226,450 Kerry raised,” Milbank wrote. “And if you take away the funds Kerry collected for the presidential campaign, he is no longer the Senate’s top recipient of special-interest funds.”

The original Post story omitted this last fact, a remarkable oversight considering the thrust of the piece.

Media Distortion?

The bigger question may be whether the U.S. news media is again going off on a tangent in which it misrepresents a narrow body of “facts” and then extrapolates broad conclusions that “define” a candidate.

In 2000, Gore was pummeled by repetitious reporting about his supposed lies and exaggerations – a press “theme” that survived detailed stories on this and other Web sites explaining how it was the press, often following the lead of the RNC, that had actually engaged in the lies and exaggerations.

Without those erroneous stories in newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, it is very likely that Gore would have become president of the United States. [For details on the inaccurate press coverage, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore vs. the Media” and “Protecting Bush-Cheney.”]

Now, in 2004, the national press corps is busily “defining” Kerry as a hypocrite who can’t be trusted. This judgment is based largely on a semantic blurring of the word “lobbyist” into the totality of “special interests.” The press corps seems to have blinded itself to the obvious point that donations from “lobbyists” represent only a tiny fraction of industry-related money.

Ironically, as in 2000, this kind of press coverage could again end up installing in the White House a candidate who represents the opposite of what the news media pretends that it cares about.

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