McCain ideals v. reality

McCain ideals v. reality

By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT WASHINGTON — Several top people have resigned from Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., campaign in the wake of news reports about their lobbying connections. McCain has set himself up as a reformer, as someone who doesn’t play the Washington game of giving favors to lobbyists. Yet lobbyists and former lobbyists have played a major role in his political life, and until the media pursued the story, McCain seemed oblivious to the conflict between his rhetoric and his record. Like any public official who has been in Washington as long as McCain, he has alliances and friendships with people in the lobbying community. As a former chairman of the Commerce Committee, he dealt with some of the most powerful business and corporate lobbyists in the city. He earned a reputation as someone who could not be trifled with, someone who has a high opinion of himself and his principles, someone who could not be won over with the prospect of receiving campaign contributions. Yet McCain was among the senators caught up in the Keating Five scandal in the late 1980’s, accused of corruption and illegally aiding Charles Keating, chairman of a troubled savings and loan association. After a lengthy and highly publicized investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, McCain, the only Republican in the group, was repudiated by his colleagues for “questionable conduct.” Three of the Democrats received the same punishment; only California Senator Alan Cranston was censured. Democrats controlled the Senate then, and some analysts speculated McCain got unfairly swept up in the Keating Five for partisan reasons. Still, McCain took the episode to heart, treating it like a political brush with death and transforming himself into a crusading opponent of special interests and their growing influence over legislation. He pushed through campaign finance reform in an effort to curb the power of money in Washington, joining with some of the most liberal senators on Capitol Hill and offending his own party, which with rare exception opposed government restraints on political money, equating it with speech. McCain considers himself and rightfully so a reformer. The straight talk express that he pioneered in the 2000 campaign, where he sits and chats for hours aboard a bus with reporters, taking questions on all kinds of subjects, is the symbol of his campaign, and an extension of his persona. But nobody with McCain’s long tenure in Washington is free of the intertwining connections with lobbyists and special interests. The need to raise money to finance campaigns is the driving force behind the access that lobbyists require to do their job. Pay to play, it’s called, and McCain is as likely as the next lawmaker to grant an audience to a lobbyist who’s donated to his campaign. That doesn’t mean he will deliver a legislative favor, and it doesn’t mean if he delivers the favor, that he wouldn’t do it anyway because he thinks it makes good public policy. The dilemma for McCain, the media and the voters, is where to draw the line between doing what’s right for your constituents, and catering to some lobbyist who might be a good friend. McCain saw what happened in 2000, how George W. Bush and his campaign set aside all ethical rules to destroy his reputation, even going after his wife and children with scurrilous charges. McCain is conflicted between his ideals and the reality that brought him to those ideals. He doesn’t have the financial resources of his Democratic opponent. To the extent he rids himself of all the lobbying influences around him, he risks losing the people who can best fund his campaign, who know how to raise money, and who are adept at running the kind of divisive Republican campaign that beat him eight years ago, and that he suspects could win him the presidency today. Published in The Messenger 5.28.08

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