Sunday, March 07, 2010


Here's the first sentence of Matt Bai's article in today's New York Times Magazine:

Plaintiffs' lawyers must be holding their heads a little higher when they walk into P.T.A. meetings and neighborhood parties these days, knowing that corporate lobbyists have overtaken them as the most despised professionals in America.

Is this really true out there in the heartland? Does people truly despise plaintiffs' lawyers as a class? Were they actually the most despised professionals in America until just a little while ago? Maybe I'm culturally out of touch with the real America, but I don't see it. If lobbyists weren't the most despised professionals until recently (which I don't buy), you're telling me plaintiffs' lawyers were more despised than hotshot corporate lawyers? Or health plan executives? Or, um, politicians?

I think Bai believes what he wrote because -- self-hating Democrat that he is -- he's heard so many Republican politicians bloviate about "trial lawyers," and he simply assumes they're wise and have an unerring sense of what genuine Americans believe. (I agree that they're good at finding and pushing hot buttons, but I think they're wrong on this one. Hell, North Carolina elected John Edwards to the Senate when he was a known trial lawyer and a Democrat, right? And didn't America come close to making Edwards vice president?)


The sentence quoted above is just throat-clearing on Bai's part; he's writing to make the point that lobbyists aren't really a cancer on the body politic. He doesn't do a very good job:

If you know some decent people who also happen to be lobbyists, as I do, then it is tempting to defend their honor against such an onslaught -- to declare, as Hillary Clinton did at a forum with bloggers in 2007, that "lobbyists are people, too." You might point out that industry lobbyists weren't the reason that Democrats in Congress could not get out of their own way long enough to pass health care reform last year; after all, pharmaceutical companies spent something like $100 million in support of the Democratic plan.

Matt, I can't help you if you hang out with trash -- but I will point out that while Big Pharma backed the plan, the rest of Big Medicine has been far less enthusiastic. Lobbyists don't all work in sync all the time.

Bai continues:

The problem with [criticisms of lobbyists] isn't that they are too hard on lobbyists who try to influence the system. It's that they're too easy on the politicians who cave to the pressure....

The flaw here is that if our senators and congressmen really wanted to be ideal public servants, they wouldn't need us to protect them from their corporate patrons. Rather, they would simply do what's right and face the consequences. That is, after all, what most Americans do when our work requires us to choose between our principles and our personal gain. Most of us would sooner leave our jobs than follow orders to defraud clients or falsify records. The guy at the deli counter probably isn't going to sell you contaminated meat just because his boss orders him to, any more than your electrician is going to risk burning down your house by installing faulty alarms.

But politicians don't believe they're killing or harming anyone when the do as their corporate masters ask; they think they're doing right by, well, constituents -- constituents who all just happen to wear Gucci loafers. Politicians think the country will get along just fine if those constituents are disproportionately heeded. They're not like a deli guy selling contaminated meat; they're like a deli guy selling hormone-saturated meat that the FDA insists is perfectly safe, even though he's heard people argue that it isn't, and has wondered occasionally whether they're right, but is choosing not to think about it. I'm not defending politicians, but they're in the same state of denial a lot of people are in when their livelihoods depend on it -- people who just decide to believe the reassurance that they're blameless. Is that defensible on the pols' part? No, not really. But the lobbyists aren't blameless -- the system isn't blameless. A huge portion of the blame lies with those who maintain and defend the system.

(In the latter group of system-defenders is, of course, the Supreme Court, which has insisted in the Buckley and Citizens United decisions that corporate money is speech. Also in that group are right-wing pontificators who proclaim in their op-eds and think-tank papers that the Supreme Court is correct and wise and doing just what the Framers intended.)

More from Bai:

Is it really so outside the bounds of human nature to expect congressmen to serve the interests of the voters, even when their own ­re-elections are in jeopardy?

The political system is imperiled mostly because too many of our politicians just can't seem to imagine any worse fate in life than losing an election.

What I don't understand is what's going on right now with Democrats , whose subservience to the corporate will, instead of guaranteeing their reelection, is threatening their reelection.

But habits die hard. As a Democratic pol, usually you talk a friend-of-the-people game, then serve corporate interests when you're in office -- and the voters reelect you anyway. In a recession, it doesn't work that way -- Democrats actually needed to choose between lobbyists and constituents in the past year, because constituents are really, really hurting. But the Dems did what they always do, and thought they'd win the way they always do regardless. They won't -- and the question is why they couldn't see that coming. Bai wants to know why they're not moral, and why, instead, they're so focused on self-preservation. I want to know why they aren't interested enough in self-preservation to tell the fat cats just once to sod off.

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