Putting faith in fresh faces

“The good ole days weren’t always good,” crooned Billy Joel in his 1984 hit “Keeping the Faith,” “and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” For those distressed by forecasts of Democratic losses in the midterm elections — an outcome consistent with an 80-year historic trend — it’s a sentiment worth remembering. Supporters of the Obama campaign’s movement for change should consider what the 112th Congress will look like. There will be new blood in both parties — and that’s a hopeful sign for those who’ve had it with the old ways of Washington.

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If between now and Nov. 3 there is not a single incumbent in either party defeated, 13 new senators will be sworn in next January. Another three will have taken office after the 2008 elections. Twenty-one more will have begun serving in 2007 or later. It’s a guarantee that two out of five senators in the next Congress will have been in that body for four years or less.

That’s bad news for Washington lobbyists. For decades, they’ve run the show, currying favor with members of both parties with billions of dollars in campaign contributions. Long-serving members of Congress are more familiar with — and, one might conclude, more dependent upon — the generosity of these Washington kingmakers than lawmakers elected after online fundraising came of age.

The most powerful example of this financial independence is President Barack Obama. Refusing contributions from Washington political action committees or lobbyists, he still managed to shatter all fundraising records, with an astonishing $500 million raised via the Internet — much of it from small donors and first-time contributors.

It’s one reason why Obama has been able to challenge the Washington special interests accustomed to blocking reform on the nation’s biggest issues.

First, the president won a historic new health reform law — a major setback for the previously invincible health insurance companies, whose lobbyists are among Capitol Hill’s biggest donors. Frustrated by Republicans’ inability to kill reform at the federal level, the insurance lobby shifted attention, and dollars, to local politicians — hoping state constitutional amendments might resuscitate the industry’s practice of boosting profits by denying coverage. The New York Times reported healthcare interests gave three-quarters of a million dollars to 42 Republican state lawmakers in Florida, all of them co-sponsors of a measure to thwart the federal law.

Then Obama took on Wall Street, and sweeping reform is expected to arrive on his desk this summer. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported on big-bank lobbyists’ fruitless effort to get face-to-face meetings scheduled with key congressional lawmakers — a privilege the industry took for granted in years past. With the president determined to hold Wall Street accountable, and voters seething at the reckless decisions that led to an economic meltdown, industry lobbyists’ influence may be waning. Last year, Wall Street assumed it would gut reform by convincing Congress to kill the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. After losing that battle, the financial industry is cringing as legislation grows stronger rather than weaker with the final vote approaching.

With health insurance companies and Wall Street banks on the ropes, the White House is now doing battle with one of Washington’s most powerful and entrenched special interests — Big Oil. This week, Obama forced BP to create a $20 billion fund to pay damage claims from its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — with no cap on BP’s liability if that amount is exceeded. In his Oval Office address, the president also renewed his call for comprehensive clean-energy legislation — reform that the oil giants have successfully blocked since the 1970s. While the future of the energy bill remains uncertain, don’t bet your bottom dollar against Obama on that one either.

In the old days, Washington politics was simple. Powerful corporations hired well-connected lobbyists to lend political support — and legislative direction — to lawmakers who understood that special interests offered job security, no matter who was in the White House.

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But with more fresh faces on Capitol Hill, the Internet’s empowerment of small donors and a president who isn’t beholden to corporate lobbyists, the rules are changing. While the pundits focus on which party is up and which is down, the real losers in the Obama era are those who benefited most by Washington’s historical resistance to change.

And that’s one reason for every American to keep the faith.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.