More than three decades ago, I had my first encounter with a certain corporate lobbyist. It was on the eve of the 1968 election and he said he was prepared for any outcome. On his desk was a framed photo of the next president — on one side was a photo of Hubert Humphrey, the other Richard Nixon.
Nothing has changed today. K Street wants to be with “the ins.” No sooner have lobbying groups rebranded their image for a change than it appears the pendulum is swinging back. Charlie Cook is among those predicting a Republican sweep of Congress similar to 1994. Political action committee (PAC) donations from Wall Street are shifting to the GOP and corporations and interest groups are once again hiring Republicans to their staffs after stocking up with Democrats.
In the long run, what affects a member’s vote is not gamesmanship but what his constituents and conscience demand. Consider one of the legendary senators, J. William Fulbright. He was driven by a passion for wanting to affect foreign policy, but given political reality he had to vote against civil rights legislation. Even if all of a sudden you became his BFF, you were not going to change his principles.
What, then, should a K Streeter do in this potentially monumental political shift, so soon after 2008?
Simple as it may sound, stick to basics. It’s like schools used to do: focus on the three R’s: reading, writing and ’rithmetic.
As a K Street representative of a specific issue or business — stick to principles. A policymaker respects somebody who has credibility. Disagree on principles and don’t make it personal or partisan. As many firebrands outside the Beltway demand no socializing with “the enemy,” positive, good-government action gets done by principled, moderate, bipartisan negotiations, rather than the wielding of flaming pitchforks.
That means staying bipartisan when and where possible. The country is either center-right or center-left, not Democrat or Republican and, as recent years have shown, there are no “permanent majorities.” Our two-party system brings us to the center, and that’s the place K Street should largely stay. If you have done your homework and you’ve reached out to and educated both sides about your issue, people on both sides of the aisle will defend your interests.
Build your expertise. I spent my early years in tax policy. Back then our tax code had already grown from a mere few pages to the monstrosity that it is today. By focusing and sharpening your expertise in your niches you can earn credibility with the long-term glue that really makes Washington run: committee staff, think tank experts, lobbyists, regulators and members who eventually rise to leadership positions.
That all sounds pretty basic, though too few people stick to those principles. One crucial emerging reality demands immediate attention from K Streeters.
We all must truly understand that today’s new political dynamics are not based on party label but on the anguish and alienation that are driving the electorate. In 2008, the Obamanistas were driven by the need for change, whether it was the need to let new leadership tackle the sliding economy, address the healthcare crisis or end the two-front war.
Today the change being offered isn’t clicking with a large, growing segment of Middle America, and we’ve seen the same voter backlash from the Tea Party movement.
Obamanistas and Tea Partiers are two sides of the same coin that don’t care about the political games of BFF and are feeling like Washington matters less and less. This groundswell is growing, especially as new-media communications claim more and more ground from the decreasing ranks of old-school reporting and bureaus.
Certainly there is excitement in the air for those on the political ascent, and chagrin on those who appear to be fading. But a wise K Street Insider should put his or her two-sided photo frame away, keep a level head and make the alienated middle class his or her new “best friend.”
The main lesson is to stay bipartisan, credible and in the ideologically reasonable center. You may not always be driving the bus, but you won’t end up under it.
Bloomfield is president and CEO of the American Council for Capital Formation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to public policies supportive of saving and investment to promote long-term economic growth, job creation and competitiveness. Bloomfield also runs a blog, MrCapitalGains.com.