Liquoring up the Democrats

Corporations with business pending in Washington spared no expense on Denver parties.

Published August 29, 2008 1:02PM (EDT)

An unruly crowd gathered outside a fancy lounge near the Pepsi Center for hours, pressing up against bouncers to get to the party inside. Anyone who made their way through the door found an open bar, a horde of lobbyists, political strategists and reporters and a handful of lawmakers. But first, you had to wait in line, then prove you were invited by finding your name on a pre-printed list. Unless, that is, you were former White House chief of staff John Podesta, in which case you hopped out of your black SUV, walked up to the door and strolled right in at around midnight with barely a nod at the security guys.

The nightlife at the Democratic convention has seen the usual celebrity hierarchy turned sort of upside down, with wonky Washington power brokers suddenly commanding the sort of VIP treatment at swanky clubs usually reserved for ex-reality TV stars. As soon as the night's speeches end -- and sometimes before then -- trendy bars and clubs around town have filled up with D.C. types wearing convention credentials around their necks. Performers from Kanye West to Willie Nelson have appeared on late-night stages, and most people in Denver could probably have managed to get through the week without spending a dime on dinner or drinks by bouncing from party to party.

There's a reason, of course, that even junior House aides are able to get into lavish events that keep them fed, drunk and entertained all week; the parties are sponsored by huge corporations with plenty of business pending before them when the whole scene heads back to Washington. With Democrats in charge of Congress, and aiming at the White House, corporate interests who only used to care about Republicans are using the convention to cozy up to the other side. In fact, according to tip sheets compiled by D.C. lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie (an equal-opportunity employer of Republicans and Democrats alike), there were far more evening receptions, cocktail parties and big blowouts this week in Denver than there will be next week in St. Paul. But the new interest in Washington's Democratic rulers made for some unusual juxtapositions between the party's platform and the anti-lobbyist rhetoric of Barack Obama's campaign.

On Monday night, for example, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States joined with Daimler, the National Association of Home Builders, Astra Zeneca and other sponsors to throw a huge bash at a downtown nightclub. (The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, also sponsored the event.) There was a table set up where hostesses in tight shirts poured thimble-size shots of expensive whiskey -- Johnny Walker Blue and ritzy bourbons with rustic names you won't find at your corner liquor store. Over at the bar, they didn't seem to have stocked anything cheaper than Gray Goose vodka and Tanqueray gin, and it was all free. When lobbyists for the liquor industry throw a party, they like to show off the wares.

There were also lunches and cocktail parties for big donors all through the week, most of which were hermetically sealed from anyone with an inclination to report on the events. The more money you gave to Obama, the better your seats were at the Pepsi Center and at Mile High Stadium at Invesco Field, where Obama spoke Thursday night. Celebrities, though, were pretty invisible at the convention, though they popped up at parties all over the place. The campaign, anxious about John McCain's attacks on Obama's popularity, didn't want Hollywood stars showing up in the TV coverage.

Theoretically, of course, there were supposed to be some rules to keep members of Congress and their staff from being unduly influenced at the convention. (A party in one lawmaker's honor was prohibited, but parties for groups of lawmakers were fine -- so AT&T feted the entire conservative Blue Dog Coalition Sunday night.) But the loopholes were big enough to fit the whole Pepsi Center into. Anyone who worked for the Senate was allowed to go to any party where there were more than 25 people who worked anywhere else, like, say, for the lobbying firms that helped put the parties together. The ethics overseers in the House, having a spasm of conscience, ruled in the middle of the week that anyone who wanted to go see Kanye West play at a bash sponsored by the Recording Industry Association of America had to pay $90. Salon didn't manage to secure an invitation, but the buzz was that there were a lot of no-shows who didn't want to fork over any cash.

But while the entire system makes a sham of the ethics regulations, most of the parties -- including one that was closed to the press -- weren't the smoke-filled rooms of influence-peddling that they might sound like. Serious political players mostly skipped the big bashes; no one with much power to make any decisions seemed to be swinging by for the free beef satay at the end of the night. Instead of being sinister, the whole scene was kind of pathetic. No one was lurking in the corners cutting deals, though at a charity benefit for reconstructing New Orleans on Sunday night, GOP operative Mary Matalin (whose husband, James Carville, was a host of the event) was lurking in the back of the room, hiding from the Democratic crowd. What you had instead was a bunch of lobbyists and a bunch of reporters (who are always up for free booze, but then tend to write stories like this one to justify drinking it) mostly standing around talking to themselves.

That's because these parties aren't really intended to get anyone to change their minds on any particular policy. When you've already helped fund the campaign that got a lawmaker to Washington, you don't need to give them free food, no matter how tasty the fried okra with crab on top might be. Here in Denver, and next week in St. Paul, lobbyists aren't buying any new influence. They're showing off the baubles they've already got.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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2008 Elections