Steve Hildebrand was one of the top advisers who helped put President Obama in office, but he has a stark warning for his old friends at the White House and on Capitol Hill.
“I think that there is a real shot we [Democrats] are going to get slaughtered in elections this fall if we aren’t leading the efforts to reform Washington,” Hildebrand said. “We campaigned in ’06 and ’08, and if voters don’t see that change, we haven’t lived up to that promise.”
Hildebrand, a highly regarded strategist in Democratic circles who helped deliver the crucial state of Iowa for Obama, is an outside consultant pushing issues such as campaign finance and lobbying reform.
He came to the White House on Wednesday for a quiet meeting with the president’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, to express a fear that Republicans are seizing the high ground on cleaning up Washington, on issues such as the ethics probe of Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-New York.
Hildebrand is pushing for a strong outside body to oversee congressional ethics so that lawmakers are no longer policing themselves, and he is lobbying on behalf of the Fair Elections Now Act, which would limit federal campaign contributions to $100 to try and cut the influence of big money donations.
“Voters want solutions, but voters know that it starts with getting money out of politics first,” Hildebrand said before his meeting with Axelrod. “And I’m going to push that with David, I’m going to push that with anyone that will listen.”
Pressed on whether the president is doing enough on lobbying and campaign finance reform, Hildebrand said, “I don’t think anyone in Washington is doing enough on this.”
Hildebrand sounds baffled that his party is allowing Republicans to capitalize on scandals involving Rangel and ex-Rep. Eric Massa, a New York Democrat, just as Democrats did in the last two elections.
“Point is things [are] happening today in Washington under Democratic leadership that were happening under Republican leadership that we went after pretty hard as a party,” Hildebrand said. “We went after that culture of corruption, and I don’t believe there is a culture of corruption, but I do believe there is an image problem that Washington in general has to deal with. And Democrats are in trouble now and if they don’t do anything.”
After their meeting, Axelrod told CNN that Hildebrand is a “very passionate advocate” who has some “fair criticism” of fellow Democrats.
But Axelrod pointed out he believes Obama has been aggressive in trying to curtail the influence of lobbyists within the executive branch by banning them — with a few exceptions — from serving in the administration or on presidentially appointed boards or commissions.
Axelrod noted that in his State of the Union address, Obama pushed Congress to enact more lobbying disclosure regulations and to pass legislation to push back on a recent Supreme Court decision that could flood more special-interest money into federal elections
Axelrod said the administration will keep fighting to reform Washington.
“I’m as committed to that as I was on the first day” of the new administration, Axelrod said.
Hildebrand is known for speaking his mind. In September, he told Politico he was “losing patience” with the White House, and he said the president needed to be “more bold in his leadership.”
But a few weeks later, the president praised Hildebrand at a White House reception celebrating gay rights, introducing him as, “Somebody who helped ensure that we are in the White House, Steve Hildebrand.
“Please give Steve a big round of applause,” Obama told the crowd.
Hildebrand, who is openly gay, said he gives the president credit.
“When the president signed the bill, the hate crimes [bill] last fall, it was the first piece of legislation ever in the history of Congress to affirm the rights of gay people in this country.” he said.
And overall, Hildebrand said, the president deserves a B plus for his efforts to stabilize the economy and overhaul health care.
“I’m thrilled we’re on the cusp of health care reform,” he said. “It’s so important and necessary. I’m thrilled the president has not given up and [has] been persistent.”