Carter Eskew and Democratic K-Street Culture
by Matt Stoller, Sat Jun 17, 2006 at 07:37:59 AM EDT
This Lieberman-Lamont race is becoming exceptionally important, because it's the most high-profile of a series of clashes between two different ways of doing politics. The bear ad, and the ad man named Carter Eskew who is the consultant behind it, unwittingly reveals a lot about what's going on in both DC and in Connecticut.
Looking into how Carter Eskew does business will illustrate the stakes of the Lamont-Lieberman fight. Eskew isn't just your every day ad man; he's a partner at the Glover Park Group, a high profile lobbying and communications shop in DC that includes him and ex-Clintonites such as Joe Lockhart and Joel Johnson. This firm does a fair amount of business, and it is extraordinarily well-known in this town. And while I don't want to point fingers, there's sometimes a sort of ethical flexibility about the lobbying work they do. For instance, I've uploaded this document, a polling memo from the Glover Park Group, on the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan that they distributed to the media. It is a summary of public polling that starts with this passage:
After a thorough review of early public polling on the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, our analysis suggests that support for the program is solid. Five months into the program, enrolled seniors are satisfied with the program, found enrollment to be easy and think it's saving them money.
Clients of the Glover Park Group include groups that represent the pharmaceutical companies and groups that represent insurance companies who manage the prescription drug plan. The memo was sent to Democratic Communications directors on the Hill, as well as journalists. That's not really the problem, though it's kind of distasteful. The problem is that Joel Johnson, the high profile Clinton advisor turned Glover Park lobbyist, represented the memo as dispassionate advice from a Democratic Party elder. Here's a passage from a Roll Call article on the memo:
Joel Johnson, a partner at Glover Park, said his firm came to "the conclusion that with all the issues the Democrats have to work with, it just seems clear that there are more valuable targets upon which to focus our fire: tax breaks, Iraq, energy, environment, ethics."
"Nobody's more interested than I am in electing a Democratic Senate and Democratic House," said Johnson, a former senior policy and communications adviser to President Bill Clinton. "I hope we fight the most effective battle and are not falling into any traps."
That this election strategizing just happens to cohere nicely with the interests of corporate clients is interesting. And that's the culture of Carter Eskew's firm. They sell access to Democratic and media insiders, and they sell their political judgment.
Which brings me to Carter Eskew's bear ad. The ad is a judgment failure on Eskew's part. The ad works on one level - it would convince Joe Lieberman to vote for Joe Lieberman, for instance. But for normal non-machine people who don't see Lowell Weicker's 1988 loss through the same earth-shattering lens, it doesn't make any sense.
For Lieberman, however, and Carter Eskew, Weicker is the opponent. Lieberman is a machine politician, and Carter Eskew is a DC machine lobbyist. Their memory is long, sharp, and out of sync. Lieberman's last real Senate race was in 1988, but that's how he won it, so that's how he'll win this one. Now, I'm not from Connecticut, so I can't pretend to know a great deal about lingering feelings about Lowell Weicker and whether the ad stings in some non-obvious Connecticut-specific way. My guess is that it doesn't, because people don't really care that much about someone who hasn't been in office for many years. Political machines, though, have long memories, and are always fighting the last war.
And that's where the lobbying complex of the corporate Democratic DC comes in. In both lobbying and campaign ad work, a political operative is selling judgment. The same bad judgment that led to the dishonest flackery on the prescription drug bill led to this bear ad (and the Iraq war, Alito, etc). They are the same people. They are similarly out of touch.
The lobbying is tied very much into the campaign work. Some of the major campaign consulants, such as Dewey Square, use the connections they build on campaigns to create profitable lobbying practices, and this narrows what kinds of campaigns they run.
For another example, look no further than our old friend Mike McCurry, a generational and ideological colleague of Carter Eskew and the whole lobbying crew, and a John Kerry advisor in 2004. McCurry bases his argument against net neutrality on an anti-government attitude; throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he thinks that an embrace of big government 'got our heads handed to us'. He believes that Democrats lose when they adopt economically populist positions. This is the attitude that permeates the political culture of Democratic leaders, because they succeeded with this attitude. Having ascended in politics during the Reagan era, people like Chuck Schumer, Carter Eskew, Joe Lieberman, Mike McCurry, Joel Johnson, Joe Lockhart, and Bill and Hillary Clinton share a cultural and political aversion to the use of government for economically populist ends.
This is a profitable belief. Tony Coelho, the Democrat who created the original K-Street Project in the 1980s, helped to both hold Congress in the 1980s and to pave the way for a profitable post-political career for all sorts of Democrats. Delay took this machine and supersized it, but the blueprint was Coelho's, and the remnants are people like Carter Eskew. Major campaign consultants, with their roots in this Democratic K Street culture, are the human link between Democratic campaigns and pro-corporate beliefs.
So that's what we're dealing with, a group of people who believe in an outdated machine politics. For twenty years, there was no conflict between being a Democrat and being a corporatist. Today, there is, and in the case of Lieberman and his lobbyists/consultants, it's producing excessive greed and disloyalty. Lieberman's refusal to rule out running as an independent, Chuck Schumer's noise that he might support an independent bid, and McCurry's work for the telecoms are all part of this. And in Carter Eskew, you can see this at work in real time.
Now, to be clear, working in politics and then lobbying politicians is not in itself a bad thing, but you do have to be careful about the ethics involved in trading on these relationships. In today's DC culture, this revolving door is so commonplace and so normal that K-Street Dems pretend like ethics are just not relevant anymore. That's just a dated attitude. So if the bear ad seems out of place, it's because Eskew believes that we are still in the 1980s in the midst of the Reagan Revolution, or the 1990s, during the Clinton era. He is part of the machine that produced a profitable niche for all sorts of lobbyists and single issue groups, and an easy path for Democratic politicians who could play the single issue scorecard game without actually moving a progressive agenda. It was quite the nice racket.
These K-Street Democrats have a lot of power, and they are angry at the Lamont challenge because it's a direct threat to their revenue stream. And in Carter Eskew, you can see how tied together these machine people and lobbyists really are. I know it's hip to say that Lamont is not a single-issue candidate, but it's true in a deeply fundamental way. The Lamont challenge is a direct attack on how DC does business.