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The Flaming Moderate

LiberalOasis Interviews Charles Lewis

"The Buying Of The President 2004" is the third installment in what has become a tradition of the presidential campaign season.

Charles Lewis and his staff of 53 at the Center for Public Integrity researched two million documents and conducted 600 interviews to write BOP 2004, LiberalOasis' Book of the Month for February.

As a result, the book meticulously details what special interests are funding each of the candidates, the astonishing amounts of money involved, and what that means for our democracy.

Mr. Lewis joined LiberalOasis for an exclusive interview on January 28, 2004 to talk about the influence of money on the White House and the system in general. The following is an edited transcript.

LiberalOasis: Is there anything specific that you can point to that President Bush's donors have received for their investment?

Charles Lewis: How much time do you have?

Enron is his top donor...We actually counted 49 favors from lawmakers from the late 1980s all the way to today.

Bush the Father, Clinton and W. have all done things to assist Enron...

...Whether it's deregulating themselves throughout the 50 states, deregulating or exempting themselves in Texas over various subjects when Bush was governor.

We have an extensive section on Enron in the book, and the closeness between Kenneth Lay, formerly known as "Kenny-Boy," after the scandals hit known as "Mr. Lay."...

...No one can overstate the closeness of that company to Bush.

He took more money from Enron that any politician in America. And there are concrete, palpable specific favors that Enron got...

...[Another example,] in the 2000 book, the financial sector, the big Wall Street firms were not in Bush's top 10. Obviously, oil and gas were quite heavy...

...But in the top 10 today...there are six new donors, and they are financial types -- Merrill Lynch, MBNA, Credit Suisse, International Bank of Commerce, UBS Paine Webber, Goldman Sachs.

What do all these people want? And why have they congregated around the president?

It could be his policies on cutting capital gains and dividend taxes.

It could be the policy of laying off the whole offshore tax haven issue, with no patriotic laws clamping down on that problem.

It could be privatizing social security.

It could all of the above, and probably some more that we don't know about.

But the banks are in hog heaven with this president.

LO: How do you think McCain-Feingold is working so far?

CL: It was well-intentioned folks trying to do the best they could to reform this significant problem in our democracy.

It is true that no one is giving direct checks, 7-figure checks, to the parties directly.

And it is true that these outside groups have to tailor their ads now in a way that they're accountable, and also, within 30 and 60 days of primary and general elections there's some limitations about what can be said.

But, what we've written about in Buying Of The President is all about hard money, direct contributions to the candidates. And McCain-Feingold really has nothing to do with that.

And [Senators] McCain and Feingold...would be the first to say that their reform law, that took practically an entire decade to get enacted, is only a first step...a beginning in the reform effort...

...McCain and Feingold have been emboldened by the Supreme Court decision that money corrupts -- big revelation there from the Supreme Court -- that free speech and money are not equated with each other...

...It was never a panacea. It was always seen as a first step...

Accepting those rather significant caveats, it is probably an incremental improvement.

It would be a great disservice to the public to think that politics was cleaned up in a huge, significant, almost measurable way, because that hasn't happened. The "527" outside groups are proliferating like rabbits.

LO: Are the 527s as bad as soft money?

CL: I am troubled by them.

We've now got 20,000 of these outside groups, and you can write an unlimited check to these groups. So there are people writing very large checks.

And to me, that sounds an awful lot like soft money.

It's not exactly the same thing. And campaign finance aficionados would be deeply offended and aggressively animated to suggest they're the same.

But anyone who gives a lot of money to politics, trying to influence the process, when ordinary citizens, 96 percent of the public, never gives a penny to anyone -- I have a problem with that.

To me, it's a form of trying to distort democracy. And I don't care whether they're Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives.

There's something unhealthy by a certain person having that much influence in our process today.

And can a person still do that? Unfortunately, yes.

LO: What can a politician do, with the system as it is, to not be corrupted by money?

CL: Well, not much. They might want to just not get out of bed every day.

Let's be honest. An Eagle Scout would be besmirched by this process.

There's no way to function, to literally get out of bed every day and get through the day without getting tainted.

When you have to raise a million dollars as a House member, and a four to five million on average for a Senate seat, to preserve your seat, that doesn't come from backyard barbeques and bake sales.

You've got to hang out with people that most of us wouldn't want to spend time with, people that want favors.

A check of two thousand dollars comes from a fraction of one percent, like less than one tenth of one percent, of the American people.

That's who sponsors our politics today. Economic interests that have something like an agenda that they want from government.

So, there's no way to raise millions of dollars for Congress or for the presidency where you need 30 or 40 million to be considered a quote-unquote serious candidate.

There's no way to do that in a clean way. It's simply impossible.

LO: If politicians hate having to do the fundraising circuit all the time, why don't they push public financing? Wouldn't that make their lives a lot easier?

CL: What they profess to say as an explanation, that they don't think the public wants welfare for politicians...

...[But] it's pretty clear they don't want to change it.

We have an incumbent retention rate of more than 98 percent the last three House elections. It sounds like North Korea but it's the US.

We have an incumbent class of politicians essentially where the financial and political elites have become the same people.

And they're generally assured that they'll be re-elected.

Between the redistricting shenanigans they've done -- and it's not just the Republicans who've done that, although they've done some recent innovations, not waiting every 10 years, et cetera.

But when you add in the redistricting shenanigans that can be done now with computers where you can have a designer district and gerrymander out anyone that doesn't fit the marketing profile of your prospective supporter.

That you can play those kinds of games and sit on million dollar war chests, scaring off challengers.

It means that good people, new people, can't get into politics. And they're not...

...We have a great quote from Bob Dole...he said that unless you're falling out of a ten-story window with another man's wife, it's extremely difficult to lose your re-election.

Click here to order "The Buying Of the President 2004".

Share your thoughts about this interview at the LiberalOasis Soapbox.

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