- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Democratic presidential candidatesalways drink deeply at the well of American political cynicism. Populist rhetoric no doubt bubbles up at the headwaters of their political strategies because it always meanders through the streams of their campaigns.

But this year’s rhetorical river is overflowing its banks. The torrent of anti-special-interest language spewed by Democratic candidates — while motivating liberal base voters — is drowning the truth of how Washington really works. The flood should cause a media backlash unless the press’ hypocrisy meters malfunction due to excessive moisture.

Based on the salvos fired by the Bush campaign in the last few days and the debate on last Sunday’s talk shows, the Democrats’ glass house is beginning to shatter. Furthermore, a fair assessment of whose special interests are being protected in next week’s Senate debate should further put the issue into its proper perspective.

It began with Howard Dean, but Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards were right behind. Promising to rid Washington of “special interests,” these self-described arbiters of what was good for America were going to clean out all the big-oil, HMO and pharmaceutical slime-balls corrupting Congress — “and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Yet “interests” are not “special” in the minds of these presidential contenders if they support Democrats. Maybe the real question is not “who is” a special interest, but “whose” special interest?

These candidates prey on misperceptions. Their misleading rhetoric causes many Americans to believe policy debates in Washington line up as special interests versus the public interest. Somehow those with money, access and power, overwhelm what is “right” and arrange sweetheart deals for private gain. Never do they note that the many battles in Washington don’t line up as “private” versus “public.” The real mosaic is more complex — and far less sinister.

Once the rhetoric is stripped away, Washington battles usually pit one set of (what Messrs. Kerry, Edwards and Dean would call) “special interests” against another. But teachers, accountants, environmental activists, farmers, lawyers, homeowners, union members ? (fill in the blank) are all special interests, but also constituents. And constituents and ideology drive lawmaker support. If an institution, for example, employs a lot of people in a congressman’s district, or makes an argument consistent with his or her ideological viewpoint, that influences the representative’s vote more than anything else. Despite the Democratic rhetoric, jobs and philosophy trump money and access.

Next week, when Congress reconvenes, Americans have an opportunity to take a fresh look at special interests. The Senate begins debate on a portion of medical malpractice reform legislation, placing caps on damages for OB/GYNs. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recounted a story recently about a young doctor in Pennsylvania who has had to quit practicing medicine in his hometown because he can no longer afford his malpractice insurance premiums. The “interest” causing this problem is among the largest contributors to Mr. Edwards — the trial bar. Not once has the senator from North Carolina charged that a “special interest,” which makes tons of campaign contributions and employs legions of lobbyists, has seriously jeopardized access to health care for millions of Americans.

Labor unions were among the earliest and strongest supporters of Mr. Dean, and now they are about to jump on board with Mr. Kerry. They, too, provide money, manpower and media support for congressional candidates and presidential contenders that promote labor’s agenda.

Most environmental organizations will tirelessly support the Democratic nominee and pull out the stops to defeat President Bush. And if elected and implemented, the proposals their lobbyists and campaign contributions advocate could cause others to lose their jobs or pay steeper taxes. Yet when was the last time you heard the trio of Messrs. Dean, Edwards or Kerry refer to the Environmental Defense Fund as a “special interest” group?

A more honest and realistic assessment would call all of these groups — business, labor, environmental — “special interests.” But they are “special” not because they are sinister, but because they represent various groups of real American people, tied together by specific attributes — economic, ideological or geographic. Lawmakers get elected to help these constituencies and stand up for their interests — and most of them do a pretty good job of doing just that.

Don’t let the flood of campaign hyperbole fool you. When the subterfuge stops spinning, a more truthful description of how Washington works would cause these candidates to admit that all Americans are members of one or more “special interest groups,” and politicians legitimately try to represent them. Despite the caricatures painted by cynical presidential candidates, the groups that “win” are not the shadowy well-connected, but those that take the time and invest the energy and participate in the process the way it was designed to work.

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