CHICAGO -- After dozens of forums in the last four months, it seemed as if the presidential candidates had run out of new things to say, and despite the promise of Netroots sparkle, today's YearlyKos roundtable, held in a poorly lit, cavernous convention hall, was kind of dingy.
And then Hillary Clinton was forced to explain to why she accepts contributions from federal lobbyists.
Twice in the debate, Sen. John Edwards challenged his fellow candidates to refuse to accept contributions from federal lobbyists. The second time he brought up this demand, the narrator, Matt Bai, asked Clinton whether she'd continue to take money from lobbyists.
"I will," she said.
"A lot of those lobbyists whether you like it not, represent real Americans," she said. "They represent nurses, social workers" -- here the audience began to boo -- "and yes, they represent corporations and they employ a lot of people." "I just... I just ask you to look at my record." Never, she said, in her 35 years of public service, had she bowed to the will of a lobbyist. But she would not change her mind.
Two hours earlier, Clinton spoke to a convention of police officers in Chicago and might well have pointed out that police officers employ lobbyists; unions in Washington use dozens of them, as do non-profits, colleges, universities, towns and cities.
Sen. Barack Obama, who, like Edwards does not take donations from federal lobbyists, jumped in. "I just disagree" with Clinton's notion that lobbyists don't have a disproportionate influence on the system. "Now Hillary, you were talking about your [health care] effort back in 1993, and you can't tell me that money didn't make a difference, and you can't tell me that the money they are spending is just to contribute to the public interest."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich saw an opening to tweak Edwards. "Would Sen, Edwards expand that to be willing to include all Wall Street hedge funds?" Edwards, who earned millions from New York-based Fortress Investments, wouldn't go that far. "As long as we don't have public financing, I think we have to raise money from nurses, teachers and doctors, people who work on Wall Street in New York City."
Although the headline-making exchange will probably unsettle Clinton's campaign, her refusal to disavow the culture of Washington was not surprising. Her platform aims to restore competence to government, to work within government to produce solutions, and to bring the Democratic Party back to power. John Edwards is running as an anti-institutionalist, taking on the Bigs. Barack Obama has placed on a pox on both houses of Congress and both political parties. Clinton seemed to relish the challenge of disagreeing with the audience, joking with them as they began to boo her. It was hard to here precisely what she said, but it sounded like "I'm here. This is real. It's what you were waiting for."
After the forum ended, reporters clustered around Clinton's spokesman, Howard Wolfson. Wolfson would not address the political significance of Clinton's admission, saying only that "all the campaigns have made their decisions, and we've made ours." Sen. Obama, he noted, took money from state lobbyists and allowed the spouses of lobbyists to contribute and solicited donations from employees of major lobbying firms. Edwards, he said, "takes money from hedge funds."
The first three quarters of the debate were fairly mundane. Bai persuaded Obama to acknowledge that he would tolerate short term budget deficits to fund domestic priorities. At one point, Obama referred to the U.S. presence in Iraq as an "occupation." Gov. Bill Richardson risked and received boos when he bragged about balancing the budget five times in New Mexico. Bai tried to tease out the differences between Sen. Clinton and Ex-Sen. John Edwards on Edwards. Edwards again said the country was not safer; Clinton said it was a little bit safer, but not safe enough, and certainly not safe as we needed to be.
The Netroots crowd did not want to be condescended to, but their spontaneous applause at predictable, well-worn pander standards suggested that they enjoyed the attention. There was no crowd favorite, although Obama, who turns 46 today, was introduced to the loudest cheers.
The candidates dispatched with a few blogger preoccupations. John Edwards said that his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, was prepared to be his official White House blogger. (Sen. Mike Gravel vowed to blog himself.) HIllary Clinton praised Howard Dean's 50 State Strategy, "which was exactly the right thing to do." The candidates were asked about media consolidation and none except Dennis Kucinich committed to legislation. Richardson said the Democratic Party should push for verified paper ballots, same-day voter registration and work to fight Republican attempts to challenge minority voters at the polls.
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