Everyone knows that promising to reject corporate PAC money is the cool thing to do if you’re thinking about running for president in 2020. But not all Democrats agree, according to a story in The Hill on Tuesday that includes quotes from at least three people who used to work in the Obama administration and are now lobbyists. They, weirdly, don’t think it’s such a good idea.
Barack Obama famously rejected corporate PAC money during his first run for president, and extended those rules to the Democratic National Committee once he became the nominee. (Obama backtracked on accepting corporate donations during his re-election bid, which came post-Citizens United, and the DNC rolled its own restrictions back during the 2016 campaign.)
Obama, of course, did not have any trouble bringing money into that campaign, raising over three quarters of a billion dollars. Neither did Bernie Sanders, who raised just under $230 million in his losing 2016 Democratic primary effort, or Beto O’Rourke, who demolished the quarterly Senate fundraising record in 2018 by bringing in $38 million. Sanders swore off corporate PAC donations; O’Rourke declined to bring in “special interest” money at all.
Despite the growing body of evidence that good candidates who connect with voters don’t actually need to take money from Wall Street in order to win elections, however, a whole slew of Democrats just aren’t sure about this trend. The one person quoted on the record in the whole story is Scott Pastrick, a former DNC finance chair during the Clinton administration who’s now the CEO of a firm which lobbied for Google, T-Mobile, and Bayer last year.
“In the end, it’s all about winning, and Democrats must consider the money avenue that will bring success to their campaign,” he told the Hill. “My advice is to take advantage of funding resources that will provide you with the means to win. Only then will you be able to make change and govern.”
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Tellingly, however, a lot of people who worked in the Obama administration were willing to talk to the Hill anonymously about why they think lobbyist and PAC cash is totally fine, actually:
“They would rather remove it as a debate point so they can be viewed as an outsider,” an Obama official-turned-lobbyist told The Hill about deciding whether to take corporate money.
“I don’t think that people really care either way, but I think that most presidential candidates will say it’s not worth the hit of being considered a K Street insider.”
“Corporate PAC money might make everyone feel good by saying they don’t take it,” added another former Obama official.
The centerpiece is this, in which a former Obama administration aide manages to both diss their former boss and essentially admit that they’ve been asleep for the past three years (emphasis mine):
“You’re putting yourself at [a] disadvantage relative to your Republican opponents,” another former Obama official who now lobbies told The Hill.
Other lobbyists who hold checkbooks also advised against closing the door.
“I thought it was a bad idea with Obama,” a former aide in his administration, who now lobbies, told The Hill. “A CEO contributing to a member of Congress, that CEO is just as likely to ask a candidate where they are on legislative issues than a lobbyist.”
“Not accepting a lobbyist’s money makes no sense to me,” the aide added.
If the point here is that candidates should not take money from CEOs either, then sure, that’s good. But corporate lobbyists are mercenaries for the most powerful people in the country, whose interests are often directly in opposition to providing the public with a good, semi-functioning government. Is D.C. so insular that lobbyists have no idea how they’re perceived outside of Capitol Hill?
On second thought, don’t answer that.