Politicians deploy righteous indignation like college students use credit cards to excess and with abandon. For such seasoned performers, the emotion is easy to muster, and there are few upfront costs. Rail against powerful interests or the mendacity of your opponent on the stump, and the crowd goes nuts.
But there are sometimes hidden costs in the fine print, interest payments not due for months, especially when the outrage is calculated for maximum political effect. And that outrage came back to haunt Barack Obama Wednesday when Jim Johnson, the man running his vice presidential search team, stepped down after the Wall Street Journal reported that he had received preferential deals on mortgages because he was friendly with an executive at Countrywide Financial, which has been tied to the subprime foreclosure crisis. "Jim did not want to distract in any way from the very important task of gathering information about my vice presidential nominee, so he has made a decision to step aside that I accept," Obama said in a statement.
The road that led to Johnson's withdrawal began back in February, when Obama and his Democratic allies started highlighting the many lobbyist ties that bind together the Republican campaign of John McCain. "His top advisers in the campaign are lobbyists," Obama told his traveling press, making no secret of his disdain for politicians who fraternize with influence brokers.
The approach initially paid off handsomely, given that the McCain campaign is, in fact, broadly populated by former lobbyists who have done the bidding of enormous corporations in the U.S. and sometimes in unsavory countries around the world. Current lobbyists also populate the ranks of McCain's unpaid advisory staff. Eventually, the torrent of stories about these ties, driven largely by opposition researchers working for the Democratic cause, forced McCain to create a new conflict-of-interest policy and unceremoniously jettison several trusted advisers from his campaign.
It was a clear win for Obama for a time. But as McCain was being slammed in the press, Republican opposition researchers and some enterprising investigative reporters were plotting an outrage backlash. Did it matter, for instance, that David Axelrod, Obama's political mastermind, had worked for a firm that led a public relations effort for Exelon, the utility giant? Would anyone notice that the man who helped convince Obama to run, former Senator Tom Daschle, works for a lobbying firm? Should voters care that former lobbyists also populate Obama's staff and current lobbyists offer him unpaid advice?
So earlier this week, after the reports of Johnson's ties first surfaced, McCain leaped at the chance to be outraged. "I think it suggests a bit of a contradiction, talking about how his campaign is going to be not associated with people like that," McCain told Fox News on Monday. "Clearly he is very much associated with that." The Republican opposition research machine went into overdrive, bombarding reporters with all the telling details of Johnson's record as a powerful man who profited from his own relationships. Conservative blogs and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal lit up with glee.
This forced Obama to admit, indirectly, that there was, in fact, gambling that goes on in casinos. He sounded exasperated more than anything else. "I mean, this is a game that can be played," he told reporters Tuesday in St. Louis, Mo. "Everybody who is tangentially related to our campaign, I think, is going to have a whole host of relationships. I would have to hire a vetter to vet the vetters. I mean, at some point, you know, we've just asked people to do their assignments."
But Obama's admission of the obvious was selectively applied. Even as he criticized the "game," his allies sent out e-mails announcing that the man leading McCain's vice presidential search, Arthur B. Culvahouse, was you guessed it a former lobbyist. To make matters even more complicated and absurd Culvahouse used to lobby for Fannie Mae, the rich and well-connected mortgage company where Johnson previously served as chairman and CEO. (Full disclosure: Time Warner, the parent company of TIME, is another of Culvahouse's former clients.)
For those who closely observe politics or work in the business, none of this is surprising. Nearly all the nation's brightest, and even idealistic, political professionals take jobs for wealthy interests in off years. Both McCain and Obama know this, and no matter how many conflict-of-interest policies they construct, the next Administration will be populated by people who have previously been paid large sums by companies and organizations that want to bend government to their whims.
But the outrage game will continue because it works as a political matter, especially for influencing those voters who do not devote inordinate amounts of time following the play-by-play of the election. Talk to either of the campaigns, and they will tell you that the goal of this press-release gotcha game is to create vague impressions in the minds of voters, not fully developed thoughts. How can McCain be a reformer if he works with lobbyists? Isn't Obama a hypocrite for hiring such well-connected influence brokers? Partisans, meanwhile, filter the information based on their preconceptions. They will forgive Obama's less-flattering connections but hyperventilate over McCain's, or vice versa.
Of course what matters is what the two candidates will actually do in office, and the company McCain and Obama keep are not entirely irrelevant to that question. Nor does the outrage game paper over some of the real differences between the two candidates on issues of money in politics. Obama, for instance, does not take money from registered lobbyists, while McCain does, a fact that the Democrat argues insulates him from improper influence. This argument is complicated by the fact that Obama continues to take money from the corporate executives who employ those lobbyists.
The question for the voting public, and for political reporters, is how to filter all this outrage, which shoots out like a fire hose on a daily basis. If we fall prey to the daily back-and-forth, as fun as it might be, we risk losing sight of the stuff that matters. Obama and McCain present two clearly different visions for the nation. Obama wants to force an end to the conflict in Iraq, while McCain thinks the dangers of a prompt withdrawal necessitate staying indefinitely. Obama supports a net increase in taxes for the wealthy, a possible increase in the Social Security taxes for some Americans, and more government spending than McCain on things like government-backed health care and mortgage assistance. McCain is far more bullish than Obama on continuing to open up markets as part of free-trade agreements, more vague about Social Security, and more determined to restrict federal spending, an approach that will offer less direct government support to economically struggling citizens. The two men are likely to pick judges with very different judicial philosophies for the Supreme Court.
These are some of the issues that will decide the future of our country, the state of our world and the prosperity of our children. The past dealings of relatively minor political aides like Johnson and Culvahouse will not, no matter what the candidates tell you tomorrow.