If you don’t live in Washington or work within the realm of politics or public affairs, you might not realize just how many people in this city have completely fake jobs. Obviously, my job is pretty fake too—I type things on the internet for a living, sometimes in my pajamas—but there are thousands of people here who are really completely useless, paid three times the median household income to engage in pure flimflammery. They go to work every day to construct false realities, to mislead the public on behalf of obscure paymasters. This is called Communications or Advocacy, but it is actually just Telling Lies.
A productive day could mean anything from ghostwriting an op-ed for some local schmuck to send to their local paper, to astroturfing a Twitter account, to buying Facebook ads for their real-sounding-but-totally-fake organizations—whatever will convince their funders they’re doing something with their money and not just reading about the new Game of Thrones pop-up bar. And then they go home, sometimes via a bland happy hour full of other useless suits, to their very nice apartments—$2,500 a month for a one-bedroom without sufficient counter space to chop an onion, but it has a really nice common room with a ping-pong table—and reflect: What a good day’s work.
These people are often not employed directly by the ersatz organizations to whose Twitter accounts they’re posting. Rather, they are on the payrolls of consulting firms or lobbying shops, which are underwritten by various organizations and corporations to influence public policy. On one day, they might work with a Democratic candidate who proudly claims they will fight for the middle class; on another day, they might work with McDonald’s. One of the most loathsome and slimy of these firms’ creations is the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a coalition of health-industry groups—from big players in the insurance industry and the drug industry to those in the hospital industry and various local chambers of commerce—that was organized with the explicit intention of killing single-payer and the public option, which the Partnership lumps together as if they were remotely the same thing.
One of the group’s favorite talking points is that “whether you call it Medicare for All, Medicare buy-in, single-payer, or a public option,” a “one-size-fits-all system” is a bad idea. You may think this sounds a lot like the messaging that the health insurance industry deployed against the Affordable Care Act as the efforts to write that bill were in full bloom. Years later, however, it’s coming from the Partnership’s executive director: Lauren Crawford Shaver, a former Hillary Clinton staffer who works with some of the biggest Democratic firms in Washington. (At a Chamber of Commerce event on employee benefits in September, Shaver was on a panel titled “Public Option: The Next Big Threat to ESI,” which stands for employer-sponsored insurance.) This is not some defense against creeping socialism. Even a moderate squish like Joe Biden—or Michael Bennet, for crying out loud—supports a policy that these vampires will gleefully take hundreds of thousands of dollars to kill.
The Partnership’s first tax filing, obtained this week by Andrew Perez of Maplight, details how the organization has embedded itself within a network of Democratic shit-hawking shops to conduct its work against health care reform. Its biggest vendor was consultancy Forbes Tate, whose relationship with the organization is well known: The Partnership’s operations are run out of the firm’s office, according to Politico. Shaver is a partner at Forbes Tate; before that, she worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services. Forbes Tate received $1.7 million for this work last year, a third of the Partnership’s total income. (We are not informed who donated to the Partnership, because it is a 501(c)(4).)
The second-biggest winner from the Partnership’s activities: Bully Pulpit Interactive.* It has, according to its website, worked with clients ranging from the Democratic Party and Tammy Duckworth’s campaign to such society-ruining, law-flouting tech giants as Airbnb and Uber. In 2016, the firm was a major vendor for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, collecting more than $10 million for its work handling “digital advertising and digital media buying for both the Hillary Clinton campaign and its joint fundraising organization with the Democratic National Committee.” Bully Pulpit Interactive’s clients include some of the biggest center-left advocacy joints in town, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign, Emily’s List, and Everytown for Gun Safety—though these are just the clients it makes public. For some reason, its site doesn’t list its work for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a cartel dedicated to exploiting the labor of student-athletes, which was worth $12 million in 2017. Who knows what other clients the firm services but doesn’t publicize—as it chose not to do for the Partnership? Thanks to our feeble transparency laws, it doesn’t have to tell us. Public relations work doesn’t count as lobbying for the purposes of lobbying disclosure rules.
The firm Seven Letter, formerly Blue Engine, made $140,000 off the Partnership last year. The Intercept reported that Seven Letter “handled the Partnership’s interactions with the media.” Its staff includes prominent spin doctors such as Brendan Buck, who has previously worked for Paul Ryan and America’s Health Insurance Plans, and Adam Abrams, who used to work for the Obama White House. (If you long for a lost era of bipartisan comity, you’ll find it thriving on K Street.) According to a tax filing viewed at ProPublica, in 2014 Blue Engine worked for a group called Reforming America’s Taxes Equitably, a coalition of some of America’s biggest corporations that exists to push for lower corporate tax rates; it would go on to celebrate the 2017 Trump tax bill.
The New Republic asked Karthik Ganapathy, a former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer who recently founded MVMT Communications, which bills itself as “primarying the consultant class”: What is the deal with these firms? “A lot of people come into politics to make people’s lives better,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, though, those folks get ground down by its institutions and start to understand that politics is a business just like any other, run by really rich folks who call the shots, and begin to see a lot of potential money on the table. So they start to work for and with people that the 25-year-old version of themselves would have thrown tomatoes at—and that’s just really sad to me.” It is worthy of lament: You’ll meet very few young people who moved to Washington for the purpose of feathering the nests of petrochemical corporations.
The pressure on all sides in this town—institutional, ideological, financial—to accept the broad status quo is immense; candidates who make a habit of challenging the established order are rare. Many of the firms that work for the Partnership were started by or staffed with former members of Obama’s “Yes, We Can” brigade, with others going on to work for Amazon or Uber (or Theresa May). The ability of people who come to public service as righteous, justice-and-fairness-seeking liberals to transform themselves into dedicated laborers against the goals they once espoused is astounding, but every road in Washington is laid to funnel people toward that stupid, cynical end.
If Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren wants to pass Medicare for All; if Biden or Pete Buttigieg wants to implement his public option, they will have to go around not just health-industry lobbyists and their money but a whole city of careerist worms whose children’s college funds and extravagant lifestyles depend on money scraped from the Partnership’s vaults. No Democrat in Washington can claim to care at all about the millions of Americans who are currently suffering at the hands of a health care system designed to torment them for profit if they work with a group like this, or work at a firm that works with groups like this, or go to parties with people who work at groups like this without throwing a drink in their face. These are the denizens of this subterranean world, perpetuating this repulsive system by not speaking out against it and forswearing its tainted rewards. This is what big structural change means—losing friends and paychecks, and gaining a soul.
Any president who truly wants to enact bold policies to provide Americans with lives of worth and dignity will have to contend with the raw financial power of industry as well as its grinning factotums—men and women who not long ago looked as if they were down for the cause themselves. The armies that are usually deployed in defense of Democratic policies are mercenaries who are mostly happy to work for the orcs, too, if the price is right. And if Democratic policy priorities shift from “a tax credit for small businesses that employ three dogs who are veterans” to “the Green New Deal,” there’s no guarantee the Bully Pulpit Interactives of this town will pitch in. What is the fate of the planet when the needs, wants, and desires of their lucrative client base hang in the balance?
* A previous version of this story wrongly stated that Bully Pulpit Interactive was founded by former Obama staffers Ben LaBolt and Robert Gibbs. LaBolt joined the firm in 2016, and Robert Gibbs has never worked there. (They founded an agency that was acquired by Bully Pulpit.)