Special Report

Clark Clifford Republicans

The GOP Establishment shell game: when winning is losing.

By 10.18.11

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"Clark is a wonderful fellow. In a day when many are seeking a reward for what they contributed to the return of the Democrats to the White House, you don't hear Clark clamoring. All he asked in return was that we advertise his law firm on the backs of one-dollar bills." -- John F. Kennedy on Washington lobbyist and ex-Truman aide Clark Clifford

What can one say?

Is there any wonder Tea Party supporters think they are always in danger of being played?

In a Republican Establishment shell game.

Sunday's New York Times Magazine brought a long cud-chewer titled "Does Anyone Have a Grip on the GOP? The GOP Elite Tries to Take It's Party Back."

In which all manner of people who perhaps should have thought twice or four times sat down with a reporter for America's premiere left-wing journal of left-wing record and stripped naked precisely the problem with the "Republican Establishment."

As with anyone who has worked in Washington, I can say, to update a sentiment that was once used almost exclusively in a racial context, "some of my best friends are Washington insiders." Or, if you will, lobbyists.

And as someone who is not a lobbyist by choice and has long since skedaddled home to William Penn's Woods, perhaps we should get out of the way that there is somehow something wrong with lobbying. It is, first of all, a protected constitutional right thanks to Mr. Madison and language included in that pesky First Amendment. ("Congress shall make no law….abridging the freedom of speech….or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.") This is merely a formal way of recognizing that the human species is in its own several interesting ways a race of lobbyists: children lobbying parents ("Mommy I want…"), spouses lobbying each other to varying degrees of success ("not tonight dear"), boyfriends lobbying would-be girlfriends and vice versa (those old stand-bys of flowers and hints of sex), prospective employees lobbying prospective bosses ("here's my résumé") and, but of course, the politician lobbying voters ("elect me and I promise…").

Perhaps one of the more famous lobbyists on the Washington scene was the late aforementioned Clark Clifford. A St. Louis, Missouri lawyer, his presence in Washington began when, as a young man, he was gifted with the opportunity to serve as a young naval aide to President Harry Truman. Not coincidentally, Truman was also from Missouri. But Truman's presence at the desk in the Oval Office -- and Clifford's frequently seated beside that desk -- was entirely due to a long suspected and suddenly appearing rendezvous of Franklin Roosevelt with eternity. In the blink of an eye on an early April evening of 1945, the new and (outside of the precincts of Missouri and Washington, D.C. nearly anonymous) Vice President Truman was now President Truman. And as night follows day, the Roosevelt crowd was not thrilled with Mr. Truman, nor he with them. Which made plenty of room in the White House for someone from Missouri who really liked Harry Truman. And that was definitely Clark Clifford.

The two shared various adventures together -- notably the 1948 upset over sure-thing Republican Establishment nominee Thomas E. Dewey. But eventually Harry Truman retired and Clark Clifford was on his own. Which meant that with one brief excursion back into government as LBJ's last Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford was hard at work doing exactly what JFK had hinted at in that famous quote: lobbying. Becoming what one might call "influential" in town.

Or, as The Washington Post once wrote:

Men who had legal problems with political dimensions, or political problems with legal dimensions, all called Clark Clifford, who was a master at tweezing one from the other -- and then defusing both.

But there is an all-too-obvious point often missed in descriptions of Clark Clifford -- a point that stands out glaringly in this New York Times article about the "GOP Elite" in Washington.

Clark Clifford was in his time a then-modern Franklin D. Roosevelt-Harry Truman-JFK-LBJ Democrat. Which is to say, Clifford was a believer in Big Government. So when it came time to part company with Harry Truman, what was Clifford lobbying?

That's right.

Big Government. And in his considerably influential -- and wealthy -- career, quite specifically Clifford gained that influence and wealth by lobbying of all those various parts and pieces of the Big Government apparatus established by his multiple of presidential and congressional friends. And in the doing -- if you were Clark Clifford -- there was nothing in the least either inconsistent or politically askew with this. Why?

Because, politically speaking, Clark Clifford agreed with the idea of establishing all of this Big Government in the first place.

The fact that it could eventually provide him with the power and riches of a medieval potentate was surely not something he could have ever anticipated as a young St. Louis lawyer beginning the practice of law in 1928 -- 1928, the last year in the presidency of Ronald Reagan's presidential hero Calvin Coolidge. Calvin Coolidge -- the president so famously devoted to limited government that a new President Reagan shocked Clark Clifford's Washington by prominently placing Coolidge's portrait in the Cabinet Room. Not long afterwards, Clifford sought -- you might say lobbied Mike Deaver for -- a meeting with the new president. Reagan was skeptical. "Why would I want to meet with Clark Clifford?" he asked Deaver. Deaver made the pitch that as Clifford was one of Washington's influential elder statesmen it was a good idea. Reluctantly, the President said yes. Clifford arrived in the Oval Office, paid the desired courtesy call (Reagan, certain something was up, cagily never sat down and uncharacteristically never offered his 5-minute guest a seat) and departed. Sure enough, by evening, mere hours later, a chagrined Deaver learned that "at the house of another Washington institution, Pamela Harriman, Clifford was telling anyone who would listen, including the national media…that he thought the president was 'an amiable dunce.'" A description that, again not coincidentally, matched the dim view Clifford took of the argument favoring limited government.

But if Clark Clifford was as one with his party on the role of government -- what then to say of the sentiments expressed by various Republicans in this New York Times magazine article?

It would seem obvious that a party that repeatedly states as its central belief the idea of limited government has somehow managed to produce an "elite" that in fact believes nothing of the kind. As is illustrated in this Times article.

No wonder Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves at the close of last week, an advance copy of this article in his hand, to say in essence -- and sadly -- that he was coming to the conclusion that in fact there were a number of Republicans who were on the other side -- as in those who once supported the conservative argument having jumped the fence to play in some fashion for Clark Clifford's old team.

Making them, as we will call them here, "Clark Clifford Republicans."

"Clark Clifford Republicans" defined as those who really don't believe in the Reagan/Coolidge view -- the conservative view and once upon a time the Republican view -- of the world at all. Even if they give good lip service to the idea in public, it is clear from this piece that in the quiet corners of this or that Washington bistro they are muttering their equivalent derogations for Tea Partiers that match in some fashion Clifford's "amiable dunce" derisive. Although, it appears, they have dropped the "amiable."

It's not simply that they have a Thomas E. Dewey/Nelson Rockefeller view of the world or, to use Barry Goldwater's pithy description, they favor a "dime store New Deal."

The real problem here is that all of Clark Clifford's friends across the decades have so rooted Big Government in the psychology of Washington that "Republican Elites" have elected to accept the whole premise -- and for reasons having to do with self-preservation simply cannot bring themselves to get seriously Reaganesque or Coolidge-like because to do so gnaws at their own economic vitals and capacity for influence. Both now hopelessly entangled with the concrete boxes of bureaucracy that literally litter the Washington landscape.

Again. There is nothing wrong with lobbying.

But where is it written that the government being targeted by lobbyists must be a $14.5 trillion-in-the-red behemoth? Where is it written that the federal government has to have almost two million employees? Some 320,000 of those employees in Washington alone? Where is it written that life will end if America has no Department of Energy or Education to lobby?

There is something decidedly off-kilter when the party elite for a party whose core premise is limited government is itself addicted to Big Government. So addicted that the very idea of eliminating program X (much less Department Y) is viewed with alarm as an expression of Outside the Mainstreamness or, more viscerally, "paranoia." Creating in turn the impression to a growing number of alarmed Americans that the Party of Reagan has become the Party of Jabba the Hutt -- the slug-like villain from the third Star Wars film Return of the Jedi. The Jabba described by movie critic Roger Ebert as a cross between a toad and a Cheshire cat. Flicking a tongue to catch its prey -- and smiling leisurely afterwards, leaving only the smile for visible evidence it was even there at all.

The question here is: is the GOP elite serious about limited government? Or not?

The Tea Party exists because its members believe fervently -- and correctly -- that many who occupy or occupied seats in Congress and campaigned on platforms of limited government didn't simply fail. They went over to the other side.

Worse, in doing some Clifford Republicans grew an attitude. A decidedly arrogant attitude. In this Times piece the attitude is on display as a breath-taking response from an ex-GOP House staffer-turned-Clifford Republican lobbyist named John Feehery. It's always tricky when it comes to trusting the Times in terms of both context and fact. But assuming the quote from Feehery is correct, it reads: 

"The thing I get a kick out of is these Tea Party folks calling me a RINO," John Feehery, a lobbyist who was once a senior House aide, recently told me. "No, guys, I've been a Republican all along. You go off into your own little world and then come back and say it's your party. This ain't your party."

Feehery said that Republicans had yet to sort out their "Ron Paul problem," by which he meant the proliferation of a kind of conspiratorial, anti-Washington rhetoric. "There's that element of paranoia," Feehery said. "Establishment Republicans look at these guys and say, 'You're nuts.'" 

Really?

It's utterly laughable to think that one has to be swept up in the nutty half-left, half-right confusion that is the Ron Paul following to think there is some sort of decided problem in Washington with Establishment Republicans.

Being a plain old-fashioned Reaganite will do. And as it happens, the Times article provides a sterling example of the problem.

Since several people chose to speak on the record to the Times, (and I should add that my own professional path has crossed with some of these folks and I like them all), it's fair to explore and interpret what they are saying here.

Speaking out prominently in this piece is former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber. Mr. Weber (and his wife Cheryl, a former colleague of mine) is the epitome of the nice guy. But niceness is not at issue here.

Mr. Weber is quoted thusly: 

There was a lesson in all this for the Tea Partiers, Weber said -- one he had been trying to impart to them whenever he got the chance. "I think I know what they want to accomplish, and I agree with most of it," he said. "But if they want to accomplish it, they need to 'rise to the level of politics.' I mean, you can't just stand there and take a stand and say, 'I'm not going to compromise on my position.' Because you won't achieve anything."

Fair enough.

But what does this mean in everyday Washington life? How does it translate into reality -- a reality that now resonates in all manner of ways with millions of Americans across the country. How exactly has Vin Weber decided to go about the task of limiting government? What does "rise to the level of politics" really mean when Republican elites spring into action?

Again, to be clear, we have no intention of picking on Mr. Weber here. But since he is featured in this article it's fair to examine what goes on here -- for the benefit of those who have never gotten closer to Washington than a tour bus visit.

Let's see what it means to be a "Clark Clifford Republican."

Mr. Weber, the article says, is "now managing partner at the lobbying firm of Clark & Weinstock."

And what, exactly does the lobbying firm of Clark & Weinstock do? They explain here.

Notice the buzz words used. C&W is busy "producing results for our clients."

OK. But how? Why?

Well, C&W has a "bipartisan team." And this "bipartisan team" (translation, ex-GOP and Democrat House or Senate staffers) has "experience and knowledge." But to what purpose? The proverbial Man from Mars is surely reading this and saying, "what the hell do these people do?"

Well, Clark & Weinstock is there to help if you have a… ahhhhh… problem. A problem that

requires access to the Senate, House of Representatives, or Administration, think tanks, or news media, our team has the experience necessary to accomplish your goals.

Clark & Weinstock specializes in helping our clients develop third-party allies to validate their policy goals and add additional voices to our efforts. Some policy issues develop suddenly and demand an immediate reaction. More often, public policy is formed over time behind the scenes for months or years before becoming a front-page issue.

The translation for the man from Mars -- a translation that the Tea Party no longer needs because its members have long ago deciphered this gobbledygook -- is that Clark & Weinstock spends its days and nights figuring out how to help regular Americans navigate the indecipherable maze of Big Government literally constructed by Mr. Clifford's presidential heroes and friends over the course of the last eight decades. With not inconsiderable help from "the Republican elite."

And, you can believe, Clark & Weinstock charges a pretty penny to navigate you. Making Mr. Weber surely a pretty well off guy.

Again, we're not picking on Vin Weber. He chose to jump into the pages of the New York Times on this issue. He's a good person, a responsible man, lovely (and smart) wife and all the rest.

But there are two points.

Point One: Vin Weber and Clark & Weinstock are not the abnormal in the world of Washington -- they are the norm. In fact, as of 2007 there were 17,000 registered lobbyists in Washington. Every last one of them doing their version of what Mr. Weber and Clark & Weinstock do.

But so what? What's the big deal?

Point Two: The big deal here is that after 80-plus years of this mentality growing like topsy in the nation's capital, on the eve of a presidential election in which the incumbent, a left-wing liberal Democrat, is leading the charge to make this a nation of, by and for the federal government -- the so-called "Republican elite" is sitting in Washington feeding -- literally -- off of this Big Government mindset.

How? Why do conservatives across the land get infuriated with the kind of arrogance displayed by a "Washington insider" like Mr. Feehery? Why are they so convinced that the "Republican Elite" of Washington is part of the problem?

Exhibit 1, and there are doubtless a million exhibits but this one, involving Vin Weber and -- yes -- Newt Gingrich, will suffice.

A minor note in all the controversy swirling around the financial collapse and the culpability of Washington's K Street mentality in the fall of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac turned up the fact that sure enough, Clark and Weinstock and Mr. Weber were there. To follow the bread crumb trail, in her detailed account of the collapse, Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon, New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson and her colleague Joshua Rosner describe the behind-the-scenes Washington skullduggery involved in the crash of Fannie Mae and its sibling Freddie Mac. In fact, she points the finger primarily at a Democrat, ex-Walter Mondale aide Jim Johnson, who headed up Fannie Mae. If one digs elsewhere, however, one finds that someone cited in Morgenson's book -- onetime Boston Fed chief Richard Syon -- is mentioned. Why? Says Morgenson:

Syon would later run Freddie Mac, proving to be an example of the revolving door between regulators and the entities they oversaw. Syon was chief executive of Freddie when it was threatened by insolvency and taken over by the government in 2008.

And while Morgenson does not mention either Weber or Clark & Weinstock in her book, in this story over at CNBC we learn that Freddie Mac "splashed cash" at Clark & Weinstock -- through Vin Weber. Specifically meaning C&W was paid some $360,000 in fees to help this one tentacle of Washington Big Government deal with Congress.

And where does Weber -- and every other Clark Clifford Republican of any serious financial note -- splash their cash in turn? That's right. The circle game goes round and round, with the money earned from protecting Big Government used for contributions to GOP candidate A, B, or C. To make certain the access to Elected GOP Official A, B, or C is thus greased and that when push comes to shove, no serious damage has been done to Big Government. After all, the Mother of All Milk Cows must still be milkable.

Who else takes this splashed cash? Surely we're in for another round of heated e-mails from Ron Paul fans but take a look here at the records of the Federal Election Commission. From "A" for AFLAC to "C" for Continental Airlines all the way through the alphabet to "V" for Verizon and "W" for Walgreens, the man his followers champion as the different candidate -- isn't. Not when it comes to taking lobbyist cash And again, as with Vin Weber, now elsewhere on the Big Government map, no one is suggesting Congressman Paul has done a thing wrong.

And Newt. Yes, Newt Gingrich.

In light of the fact that he's sitting on the stage of these Republican debates running for president alongside Ron Paul -- it is important here to note that buried in this December 2008 CNBC story is word that none other than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was paid $300,000 by Freddie Mac for the same reason: to help a Washington Big Government agency "push back," in this case against conservatives in Congress. Including an investigating Republican Congressman by the name of Darrell Issa. In other words, the former Speaker wasn't trying to use his considerable mind to eliminate Freddie Mac. He was trying to protect it.

Again -- one can't say this often enough in a story like this -- neither Weber or Gingrich or Congressman Paul did a thing wrong. This is in fact how Washington Big Government works -- every hour of every day.

Were Clark and Weinstock, Vin Weber and Newt Gingrich to vanish from the scene today, ten more replacements on the Washington scene, led by people like John Feehery, would be opening their doors. Spending their lives and earning their daily bread not thinking how to eliminate this or that agency that they lobby but how to gain "access" to it -- and figure how much they can charge some poor… ahhh, make that rich… non-Washington shlub for the privilege of their "knowledge."

And like Vin Weber, as this article vividly demonstrates, the "Republican Establishment" of Washington, D.C. is sitting around thinking of ways not of getting rid of the behemoth but rather -- to borrow from the presidential oath of office -- to "preserve, protect, and defend" Big Government.

This is exactly the mentality that explains so many GOP missteps of recent years. It explains why George W. Bush thought it was OK to nominate Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. It explains why the GOP Establishment flinches when a Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann or Rand Paul or Marco Rubio or Christine O'Donnell or Sharron Angle or Joe Miller step forth onto the stage nationally or within their states. It's why Republican elites quietly and behind the scenes beseech talk radio stars like Rush or Sean Hannity or Mark Levin to ease up or lay off -- which to their everlasting credit they never do. Why are you boosting a Christine O'Donnell, they will ask? Why are you giving all this exposure to Charlie Crist's Tea Party–backed opponent Marco Rubio, they will ask? And so on. And on. And on.

And why do these things happen?

Because, in one form, fashion or another the Establishment recognizes instantly that these people -- and millions of others -- are dead serious. The Tea Party is serious. Rush is serious. Hannity is serious. Levin is serious and writes a bestseller telling you why he's serious. They are all so collectively serious that when they talk about "limiting government" they mean getting rid of entire Cabinet departments and federal agencies and the literal thousands of volumes of regulations that accompany them. Not to mention the thousands of federal bureaucrats who write them.

And it's very safe to say that when the day comes that the next Republican President and any Republican Congress that served with him or her leaves office, these people will have a few questions:

• Is the federal government smaller than when you took office?
How many Cabinet Departments did you eliminate?
How many federal agencies did you eliminate?
How many government regulations did you eliminate?
How many federal jobs did you eliminate?
How many federal employees did you cut from the federal payroll?

And perhaps last but not least.

How many Clark Clifford Republicans did you gently un-employ and send home by doing this?

And did they go?

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.