By Mike Lillis - 10/08/11 08:58 PM EDT
It was billed largely as a push for job creation and a rally for President Obama. But when liberals from across the country stormed into Washington this week for the Take Back the American Dream conference, the theme of money in politics seemed to trump all others.
And it was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) – not the president – who emerged as the crowds' trusted champion of tackling it.
His message was difficult to mistake.
"Right now, from a political perspective, I think you all understand that big-money interests … exert an incredible force over the political process, and that virtually every single piece of legislation that comes on the floor of the House or the Senate has the fingerprints of big money on it," Sanders said.
"Our job, at the end of the day, is nothing more than bringing working families and the middle class together to fight for a government that represents the interests of all of the people and not just for the rich."
Sanders rattled off a string of figures that were red meat to the liberal audience. Federal revenue, as a percentage of GDP, is at its lowest rate in 50 years; the top 1 percent of earners makes more than the bottom 50 percent; the wealthiest 400 Americans are worth more than the poorest 150 million Americans.
"These are issues that have got to be dealt with from both a moral perspective as well as an economic perspective," Sanders said to roaring applause.
Those were themes that would dominate the three day conference, which ended Wednesday afternoon with a rally on the grounds of the Capitol, where even the activists grumbling about some of Obama's policy moves were quick to put most of the blame on the influence of corporate money in politics.
Annabel Park, founder of the Coffee Party, said even the most reform-minded lawmakers can't avoid the need to court well-heeled special interests once they arrive on Capitol Hill.
"They run on [reform], but once they get in, they don't help us really push for solutions to the fundamental problems," Park said. "They get co-dependent on the funders and the donors. It's so much like drug addiction. Once they have the power they don't want to give it up."
Shannon McLeish, 44, a mother from Ormond Beach, Fla., argued that money in politics is the one theme that underlies the various causes of the often-factious left. For that reason, she said, it should be the central focus of the liberals' reform efforts.
"We've had this one group talking about the environment and another group talking about the economy and everybody's talking about different things and not realizing that we're talking about the same thing, which is corporate money in our government," McLeish said. "It has totally undercut our democracy. And our politicians – even if they wanted to do the right thing – are completely hog-tied by corporate money."
Many of the activists would later join the "Occupy DC" rally, an ongoing movement protesting Wall Street culture and the influence of corporate dollars over the political system.
A popular target of the activists has been the Supreme Court's 2010 "Citizens United" decision, in which the high court ruled that funding caps on corporate and union ads targeting individual candidates violate the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. The ruling effectively undid certain provisions of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which was designed to prevent a deluge of outside money from corrupting elections.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday said the "Citizens United" decision "took us backward."
"Does money play too big a role in politics? Absolutely," she told reporters in the Capitol. "And I think that the Supreme Court decision did more to undermine our democracy and dim the voices of the American people than almost anything you can name."
Pelosi defended her role as one of the most effective fundraisers on Capitol Hill, arguing that she largely targets donors "who want good government for our country."
The California liberal also threw her voice behind the anti-corporate "Occupy Wall Street" movement, which has branched out to cities across the country.
"It's young, it's spontaneous, it's focused," she said. "And it's going to be effective."
Sanders, for his part, said the protesters – by honing their opposition to Wall Street's influence over Washington – are targeting exactly the right group.
"We have the crooks on Wall Street – and … don't misquote me, the word is crooks – whose greed, whose recklessness, whose illegal behavior caused this terrible recession with so much suffering," he said Tuesday. "We believe in this country; we love this country; and we will be damned if we're going to see a handful of robber barons control the future of this country."