Former GOP House leader Dick Armey, former New York lt. gov. and conservative activist Betsy McCaughey and even Fox News’s Glenn Beck have all seen their financial livelihoods threatened by political activists — who in several cases managed to make good on the threats.
The latest prominent figure in liberal cross hairs is U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue. Environmental activists, citing alleged conflicts of interest, have begun a campaign to pressure him to resign from the board of Union Pacific Railroad or from his longtime post as head of the nation’s top business lobby.
“We’re losing our self-government with these Chicago-style arm-twisting tactics,” complained McCaughey, who resigned from the board of Cantel Medical Group after the firm was connected — unfairly, according to it and McCaughey — to her claims that Obama’s health care reform would lead to death panels and other calamities. “Clearly, it’s an effort to silence critics,” she added.
McCaughey and other Obama critics are falling victim to tactics honed as much by the right as by the left: Bloggers research the opposition and post material that is picked up by allies on cable talk shows, who push it into the broader media.
But the new twist is that private firms, some with little connection to the policy debate and little warning, are being hauled into the public courtyard because of their association with an advocate-employee.
Several progressive groups are employing versions of the tactic, not as part of a coordinated effort but often enough to seem more than coincidence.
Faiz Shakir, editor of the progressive ThinkProgress blog, said the juncture of personal finances and political positions is fair game.
“The information we’ve put out is reliable, accurate and truthful,” he said. “They put themselves out there as the leading opponents of health care reform, and, in doing so, they were not truthful and transparent about other motives they may have had.”
Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, is also unapologetic for pushing back against Obama’s critics.
“We said all along that we would take on the opposition and anyone standing in the way” of the White House agenda, he said.
“August was a real wake-up call for progressives when health care reform was endangered by an angry mob organized by an alliance of insurance companies, oil companies and right-wing fear-mongers,” he added.
“Not so long ago, one would have had to spend a great deal of time searching records and archives to find this information. Now, it’s online,” he said.
One of the architects of that August campaign against Obama’s health care plans was Armey, who heads FreedomWorks, the conservative organization that spearheaded the “tea party” protests of anything from health care reform to government spending.
At the time, Armey’s day job was as an adviser at DLA Piper, a lobbying firm in Washington. Armey resigned in late August after MSNBC and others publicly questioned whether his opposition to Obama’s agenda was tied to DLA Piper clients.
In an interview, Armey called such claims “unfounded and ungrounded.” But, when he couldn’t stop them, he and DLA Piper agreed something had to change.
DLA Piper suggested Armey quit FreedomWorks, but he refused. Armey felt that DLA Piper was overreacting some, he said, because MSNBC’s ratings aren’t the best. “I said to them: ‘Who’s watching?’”
Ultimately, it came down to one choice: “I could have kept my job and quit talking about public policy issues,” Armey said, so he resigned from DLA Piper.
“While I might dispute the facts of the case that they got me fired, I would observe the fact that they seemed to take a rather mean-spirited joy in the fact that I left my position,” Armey said.
Armey estimates the decision could cost him millions.
“It was the best-paying job I ever had. It was a better-paying job than I ever thought I’d have,” he said. “It had been my anticipation and expectation that I would remain in that firm, in that job, at that salary range, for the next 10 years.”
The former Texas congressman isn’t exactly in the poorhouse. FreedomWorks pays him in the mid-six figures, according to tax records.
The Natural Resources Defense Council now is embarking on a similar campaign against Donohue.
It recently launched a new website to challenge critics of climate change legislation and what it believes is misinformation being spread about it.
One of the site’s first targets is the U.S. chamber president who also sits on the board of Union Pacific, a railroad that delivers tons of coal.
The NRDC argues that Donohue is using the vast resources of the chamber to fight the legislation in order to help Union Pacific — rather than representing the more diverse views of the chamber’s corporate membership.
At least three major firms, including the utility firm Exelon, have quit the chamber because of its opposition to passing climate change legislation.
To bolster their argument, the environmental group notes that Union Pacific board members are prohibited from taking any action that conflicts with its corporate interests. The coal industry is a staunch opponent of the climate bills on Capitol Hill.
“One way or another, there has got to be a potential for conflict in his two roles,” Pete Altman, the NRDC’s climate campaign director, said of Donohue. “How can you represent a federation of businesses if you are obligated to serve the best interests of one of them?”
Eric Wohlschlegel, a chamber spokesman, said the group’s policy positions are determined not by Donohue but by “policy committees, in a democratic process. Those recommendations go to the full board for consideration, again, in a democratic process.”
Fox News commentator Beck’s case is a bit more complicated, since he is both a practitioner and a target of the new pressure tactic.
Beck grabbed credit for costing Van Jones, an adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, his government paycheck.
Jones resigned the “green jobs” czar position after Beck highlighted his prior association with radical left organizations. Jones called it a “smear” campaign but quit rather than become a distraction for the White House.
Earlier, Beck infuriated Obama supporters by calling the president a “racist” and accusing him of having a “deep-seated hatred for white people.”
In response, ColorofChange.org, which tries to elevate the political voice of minorities, set out to drive advertisers away from Beck’s talk show. About 60 firms have agreed to not run ads on the show, according to Color of Change. Beck’s program for now relies on a hodgepodge of advertisers, including some with a conservative ideological message.
Despite the success of the campaign — or, in part, because of it — Beck’s ratings have soared. And Fox hasn’t lost revenue because the ads were just moved to other programs.
Shari Anne Brill, director of programming at Carat USA, a media-buying firm, said she hasn’t “heard of any show that has survived an advertising pullout of this magnitude.”
The boycott is reminiscent, she said, of one experienced by Bill Maher’s “Politically Correct” program after he commented about the relative courage of the Sept. 11 terrorists. When Maher’s ratings also declined, the show was canceled.
A similar fate could await Beck if he continues to be considered too radioactive for national advertisers. “As long as the rating levels are there, the network will keep him,” she said. “If that goes, he’s done. He’s toast.”