John Edwards is hoping to use ethics as a wedge issue to regain some momentum in the Democratic presidential primary.
But it’s a path fraught with perilous contradictions, centering on an issue that many voters have moved to the back burner after kicking out the scandal-ridden Republican majority in Congress last year. “Ethics is not the issue for 2008,” said Peter Hart, a polling expert.
On Thursday, Edwards issued a letter calling on all Democrats -- including the national party committees -- to follow his long-standing practice and forgo donations from registered lobbyists and establish a clear contrast with their Republican rivals.
But consider this: He is asking his national party committees to turn down lobbyists’ donations even though he benefited from such “tainted” cash twice before -- in his 1998 North Carolina Senate race and in 2004 as Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry’s vice presidential running mate.
During Edwards’ maiden campaign in 1998, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent about $1.5 million to help him win, Federal Election Commission records show. Six years later, the Democratic National Committee poured millions into the presidential race to help the Kerry-Edwards ticket. Both committees accepted lobbyist cash at that time.
Even Edwards’ own ban on donations from registered federal lobbyists doesn’t mean that people with a great deal of influence and interest in the legislative process aren’t still fueling his presidential operation.
Sure, they aren’t registered lobbyists. But they do employ them. A case in point: trial lawyers.
The American Association for Justice, formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, spent more than $6.5 million on lobbying last year. Six of Edwards’ 431 fundraising bundlers, people who volunteer to help raise cash for campaigns, are on the executive committee of the association, including the president-elect and treasurer. Eighteen of his bundlers are on the board of governors of the association.
An Edwards aide acknowledged that the system isn’t perfect but said the ban on registered lobbyists was the most workable way to take a clear stand on reducing the influence of special interests in Washington.
Edwards deserves some credit, though, for his consistency on the issue -- he didn't accept lobbyist contributions for his Senate race or during his 2004 presidential bid while others did. Even now, he and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are the only Democratic presidential hopefuls refusing such cash, although Obama is a new convert to such a ban.
The Illinois senator took lobbyist donations when he ran for Senate in 2004 and while serving in the Illinois state Legislature. An Obama aide said the senator realized in short order the deeply rooted influence of lobbyists in Washington after his election and shifted course to try to curb their power.
To draw more attention to his Don Quixote-like appeal to all Democrats to ban lobbyist donations, the Edwards campaign invited -- by way of a media conference call -- Obama to join him by co-signing a mass letter outlining the challenge.
The Obama campaign, which also prohibits donations from federally registered lobbyists, demurred and countered with its own offer. “We invite John Edwards and every other candidate to support the sweeping reforms Obama has proposed to take our government back from the special interests and put it in the hands of the American people,” said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton.
The party committees issued no comments -- a gesture that is easily translated into a rejection of the idea.
None of this came as a surprise to the Edwards camp, which is aiming to build on points scored at the recent YearlyKos forum in Chicago.
The crowd of mostly bloggers erupted into applause when Edwards railed against the outsized influence of health care and ther lobbyists compared with that of the general population. They also booed when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the primary front-runner who is accepting lobbyist cash, said she would continue to do so.
While the rhetoric draws cheers at campaign events, it’s less clear whether it will move voters.
Corruption and ethics were major issues that influenced the 2006 midterm elections, a cycle that included the defeat of several scandal-tainted Republican incumbents.
But public opinion experts say those defeats and the passage by the new Democratic majorities of major ethics reform legislation have minimized the issue’s potency. Meanwhile, other issues are rising or remain greater concerns for voters, including the housing market meltdown and the Iraq war.
In January, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press decided to test voters’ interest in reducing the influence of lobbyists in its annual survey of public priorities. The issue came in second-to-last, just above global trade. Those two issues scored 35 percent and 34 percent respectively, compared with 80 percent of those surveyed who ranked defending the U.S. against terrorism as a top priority.
“It could be that they don’t prioritize it because they don’t think it is a doable thing,” said Michael Dimock, the center’s associate director.
John Zogby, a polling expert, said ethics still hovers in the middle of voter concerns in his polling. Democrats have an edge over Republicans on the issue, but it’s not dramatic. “Nobody gets good marks for anything right now,” he said, noting the low opinion voters hold of Congress and the White House.
The way to frame the ethics issue, both Zogby and Hart say, is not one of corruption or influence peddling but as part of an us-vs.-them argument. “Everyplace people turn, they feel there are those in power who have a privileged position who essentially think they have rights and privileges that are different from everybody else,” said Hart.
That’s the position Edwards and Obama are elbowing each other to secure, with Clinton and her long years of service in Washington squarely in their sites.