- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

In the heat of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, when members of candidate Barack Obama’s staff began to fret about the potential for illegal attempts to intimidate voters on Election Day in Nevada, the campaign’s general counsel calmly told everyone on a staff conference call to settle down.

Don’t worry, lawyer Robert Bauer is said to have counseled. If necessary, the campaign will simply call the local authorities and have the opposition forces arrested.

That wasn’t really Mr. Bauer’s plan, of course. But the dose of bravado became such a rallying point, campaign staffers printed up T-shirt’s with the quote, “We may have to have some people arrested” on the back. On the front it read, “I ♥ Bob Bauer.”

There were many Washington insiders who saw their stars rise with Mr. Obama’s election 10 months ago. But few have soared as high or shone as brightly as Mr. Bauer.

Long a leading voice on campaign finance law, the trim, bearded, 57-year-old has since January established a near-monopoly over the Democratic Party’s election law franchise. In addition to the representation by his law firm, Perkins Coie, of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Mr. Bauer serves as chief counsel to the Democratic National Committee and as the president’s private attorney.

Where Mr. Bauer will lead the party in coming years could help shape the future of how federal campaigns are paid for, how elections are organized, and whether the troubled presidential public financing system will survive.

Mr. Bauer would not consent to an interview for this article. Mr. Obama recently issued an informal edict advising his staff not to assist with profiles. But numerous election lawyers who have battled alongside and against Mr. Bauer say they have no doubt where he will lead the Democratic Party on such matters: in whichever direction best suits the Democrats’ political interests.

In the close-knit community of campaign finance lawyers, most practitioners are purists known either as reformers trying to diminish the influential role of money on the political process or constitutionalists who believe campaign cash is a form of free speech that should remain free of government restrictions.

Mr. Bauer does not fall neatly into either category.

“He is a flexible advocate,” said Scott Thomas, a former Federal Election Commission chairman. “On behalf of his clients over time, he has been for soft money and against it. He has been for public financing and against it.”

What he is, unquestionably, Mr. Thomas said, is a passionate advocate for his clients. It’s something Mr. Thomas and his fellow FEC commissioners saw for years as Mr. Bauer built a reputation for finding novel arguments, delivering them in eloquently written briefs, and advocating for them not only in traditional ways but in long-running conversations that appeared on his Web blog.

The blog — moresoftmoneyhardlaw.com — became a vehicle not only for promotion of his musings on campaign finance law, but a tool by which he could communicate indirectly with FEC commissioners and opposing lawyers. Most mornings, even as he represented a full complement of clients, he would produce a penetrating look at a pending legal issue.

“He was incredibly prolific,” said Gerald Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center, who worked both with and against Mr. Bauer. “He often had an extensive blog post every day, and the depth of thinking that went into these pieces was incredible.”

It was through his association with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that Mr. Bauer first began representing Mr. Obama when he came to the Senate in 2005. At first, the work dealt with the routine matters that face a new member, but in late 2006, it shifted unexpectedly with Mr. Obama’s surprise decision to make a run for the White House.

In an interview with magazine Super Lawyers, Mr. Bauer described the head-spinning speed with which a conversation about a presidential bid went from an unformed idea to a full-fledged campaign.

“The logistical and organizational achievement of building an organization like that from the ground up, in that period of time, is something I’ve never seen before,” he said. The crash effort involved “everything from trying to figure out where to find the administrative staff, to recruit the staff to actually run the place, to locating office buildings, settling leases, and literally establishing the infrastructure for a presidential campaign, with virtually no time to spare.”

As the Democratic primary battle with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton grew increasingly heated, Mr. Bauer took on the role of attack dog. Perhaps the most notable skirmish came on the day in early March when Texas held its caucus. The Clinton campaign began to accuse its rivals of locking Clinton supporters out of voting places, prematurely filling out sign-in sheets and calling in results before 7 p.m., when caucuses are supposed to start.

Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton’s communications director, organized a conference call to outline his complaints with reporters. When it began, he heard an unexpected voice on the line — Mr. Bauer.

Mr. Bauer said he was “glad” to talk with his rival. “We haven’t seen each other since Iowa, which is the occasion of the last series of complaints the Clinton campaign has made against the caucus process.”

What unfolded was, for the reporters listening in, a riveting and unexpected hand-to-hand skirmish between the two campaigns, and a novel way for the Obama team to grab the attention of the captive audience. After a lengthy back-and-forth, Mr. Bauer hung up and a confused reporter asked Mr. Wolfson who it was that he had been debating.

“That was Bob Bauer — B-a-u-e-r,” Mr. Wolfson said. “Someone we all know very well, mounting a vigorous defense of the indefensible.”

Mr. Bauer spent Election Night in the Obama team’s Chicago war room monitoring calls from legal aides around the country. When it was finally over, he joined the last members of the staff to leave the office for the Grant Park celebration.

Since taking over the president’s outside legal affairs, Mr. Bauer has begun to tone down his vigorous style. In April, he ceased his daily regimen of blog posts. He cited his hectic schedule, though he was also likely aware that his words would be parsed much more closely now.

He has had another reason to proceed with more caution. His wife, veteran political strategist Anita Dunn, was tapped to be Mr. Obama’s communications director.

He has not stopped his public statements altogether, though. As the Supreme Court prepared to take on a challenge to campaign finance law earlier this month, Mr. Bauer submitted a brief on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, arguing that the court should not act rashly to alter the rules.

The position appeared to align well with the needs of the president. Mr. Obama, he noted, had quickly mastered the use of technology to expand the donor pool. Instead of relying only on large checks from well-heeled givers, he relied also on small donors sending money with a mouse click.

“A sudden change in the law, to the advantage of corporate wealth amassed in commercial transactions, would cause a violent disruption in this process,” Mr. Bauer wrote.

Despite his new-found prominence as the Democrats’ pre-eminent political money man, Mr. Bauer acknowledges the limits of his expertise in the fast-evolving field.

When Mr. Bauer appeared at a panel discussion that examined the Supreme Court campaign financing case, which is still pending, he was asked whether the high court could wind up erasing Mr. Obama’s vaunted money-raising advantage.

“Everybody who has ever hazarded a guess on how a case would impact politically has been wrong,” he replied. “For me to say what the effect would be would be beyond speculation. It would be a hallucinatory exercise.”

It was a reminder that, even as the president’s lawyer, Mr. Bauer still relished a good fight. Just as he had in Nevada, when he rallied the troops behind the idea that they would fight hard in the cause of victory.

Recalling that moment, when Mr. Obama’s staff donned t-shirts with his quote, he told the legal magazine it was one of his favorite memories of the campaign.

“I felt, for a moment, like Patton.” he said. “Not bad.”

• Matthew Mosk can be reached at mmosk@washingtontimes.com.

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