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Message Collision

There are a spate of new reports suggesting that the Democrats may no longer been on the side of the angels in the lobbyists/special interest department. It seems that Joe Biden has collected $6.5M over the years from lobbyists, lawyers, and other folks the Obama campaign has labeled as the villains of Washington. Biden carried water (and amendments) on behalf of his hometown credit card company MBNA in the bankruptcy bill debate and voted for the bill in opposition to most of his fellow Democrats. Biden’s son Hunter has worked as a lobbyist and consultant–for among other firms–MBNA. (Emphatic denials abound that he didn’t lobby his father, but Hunter’s firms have been widely active on Capitol Hill and aren’t talking about Hunter’s colleagues’ contacts with Biden’s office). And Biden collected $85M in earmarks in 2008 alone.

The New York Times explains that:

a review of the legislative record finds as many instances when Mr. Biden joined Republicans to defeat attempts by his Democratic colleagues, including Mr. Obama, to soften the bill’s impact on those same constituencies. He was one of five Democrats in March 2005 who voted against a proposal to require credit card companies to provide more effective warnings to consumers about the consequences of paying only the minimum amount due each month. Mr. Obama voted for it. Mr. Biden also went against Mr. Obama to help defeat amendments aimed at strengthening protections for people forced into bankruptcy who have large medical debts or are in the military; Mr. Biden argued that the amendments were unnecessary because the legislation already carved out exemptions for those debtors. And he was one of four Democrats who sided with Republicans to defeat an effort, supported by Mr. Obama, to shift responsibility in certain cases from debtors to the predatory lenders who helped push them into bankruptcy. In many of these battles, Mr. Biden’s Democratic colleagues often voiced their frustration with the big financial interests arrayed against them. Senator Paul Wellstone specifically cited MBNA during a floor debate in March 2001 over his call for stronger protections for debtors forced into bankruptcy because of medical bills — an amendment that Mr. Biden would later vote against. “It just so happens that the people who find themselves in terrible economic circumstances through no fault of their own — major medical bills, they have lost their jobs, or there has been a divorce — it is my view as a former political scientist and now a senator for the State of Minnesota that those people do not have the same kind of clout that MBNA Corporation has,” Mr. Wellstone said.

There is nothing extraordinary about how Biden operates. This is typical for Senators who have been around for decades. Does it seem odd for such a devoted liberal defender of “the little guys” to have cast aside all of the populist arguments to vote repeatedly in favor of the bankruptcy bill, on the side of the credit card giant that employed his son and made his own financial situation easier over the years? Perhaps. But it is, of course, just this sort of behavior that the Obama camp has railed against in its quest to position The One as superior to all his lowly colleagues who fall prey to the evil lobbyists.

Will any of this matter? Usually revelations of this type never seem to slow down the Democrats’ populist train. Because their motives are so pure and their devotion to the poor so darn obvious, they rarely receive the same harsh treatment that their Republican opponents do for the very same conduct. Granted, it may make Obama’s own attacks on these specific issues–lobbyists and their money–harder to maintain, but it will take more than all this to knock out The One’s broader class warfare message.

As for McCain, he might do well to ramp up his reformer credentials. As the guy who investigated special interests, voted against their pork-laden bills, and never took a single earmark, he seems to have the high ground in the good government department. He might in fact be a fairly good messenger for the message Obama has been trying to deliver: it’s time to clean out Congressional pork and self-dealing. Perhaps a proposal to ban immediate family members from lobbying on matters on which their relatives vote would be a good place to start.



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