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Jewish World Review Aug. 9, 1999 /27 Av, 5759

David Corn

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McCain’s Gang -- I LIKE JOHN MCCAIN. But then, you would too if you had to spend as many hours as I do paying far too much attention to such personalities as Lamar Alexander, Trent Lott, Orrin Hatch, Bob Smith, Elizabeth Dole, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey and Denny Hastert.

McCain, as the worn-out Washington cliche goes, is the Republican whom liberals can tolerate and the political reporters can enjoy. He has jousted with his own party as he has championed campaign finance reform, pressed anti-tobacco legislation and slammed the bipartisan practice of pork-barrel/special-interest politics.

Progressives appreciate the way this former Vietnam POW who was first elected to the Senate by Arizona voters in 1986 irritates the hell out of the Republican leadership. Political journalists fall for what comes across as a style of candor and directness. He appears to be telling you what he really thinks. He does not, like many politicians, fly on autopilot; he is not canned or addicted to index cards. This anti-choice, hawkish, 62-year-old, white-haired, twinkle-eyed GOPer who was one of the Keating Five (a group of senators tainted by an S&L scandal in the late 1980s) scores high on the seems-to-be-a-real-person-with-whom-you’d-like-to-have-a-beer index—especially when graded on a Washington curve.

Recently, I watched McCain, who’s seeking the Republican presidential nomination, work a reporters’ lunch that two weeks earlier had hosted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat. An hour with McCain is actually entertaining. As soon as he sat down before these journalists—most of whom represent media based in California—McCain declared his “intense dislike” of California.

The state, he said jocularly, steals Arizona’s water, and—to make matters worse—each summer he is forced to trek to San Diego to visit his constituents, all those Arizonans who flee to Southern California to escape the oppressive heat of the Grand Canyon State. Reporters eat up such frank talk. The usual script would call for a pol to begin by saying how much he loves the Golden State, which is all-important in both the primary and general elections. Instead, McCain dumps on it before getting around to the obvious tribute. Granted, it’s a sad statement on Washington that such behavior so distinguishes McCain from the pack. He does have that Dole-like (Bob, not Liddy) acerbic sense of humor—for which scribblers are suckers—but without that Dole dourness.

Asked why he is not participating in the upcoming presidential straw poll in Ames, IA, McCain huffed it is “a meaningless exercise,” adding, “it’s a wonderful, laudable, money-raising scheme for the Republican Party of Iowa...I commend them.” Of course, McCain is ducking a fight he most likely would not win. But he is right to whack this event, a big con, where campaigns will be busing in supporters in order to try to orchestrate a bump.

There’s hardly a profiler of McCain who doesn’t reach for the word “maverick.” McCain blasts away at the corruptions of the political system, pitching campaign reform as the foremost reason he’s chasing after the top job. “I’m running to reform government, the campaign finance system,” he said, “and only through reform can we gain greater freedom for the American people.” That’s talk straight out of Common Cause or Ralph Nader. The modest reform legislation he has sponsored for the past several years (the McCain-Feingold bill) triggers apoplexy among his Republican colleagues, who keep scheming successfully against it.

His latest finger-in-the-eye-of-the-GOP is a measure that would eliminate government subsidies for the ethanol, sugar, oil and gas industries and apply $5.4 billion of those savings to a school voucher program. Vouchers or favors for contributors—that choice the issue in a way that cannot make the Republican leadership happy. But, as McCain conceded, he has as much chance of success with this bill as he has of being on the next NASA launch (the legislation was defeated).

He blamed the “Republican-controlled Congress” for spending billions of dollars on big-ticket weapons that are not needed, while many military families are so underpaid they have to apply for food stamps. He’s out of synch with the gay-bashers of the GOP, maintaining he would have “no problem” with openly homosexual and lesbian Americans serving in his administration. But it is on the money-and-politics front that McCain stands out most. Before the reporters, he jabbed at George W. Bush for sending hundreds of lobbyists, “wearing bib overalls over their suits,” to Iowa. He lashed out at Haley Barbour, the former Republican Party chairman, for pocketing $1 million as a lobbyist for Big Tobacco.

But wait a minute. Wasn’t it only four months ago that Barbour was listed as a host for a McCain fundraiser during which McCain raised over $120,000, much of it coming from lobbyists representing corporations with interests before the Senate commerce committee McCain chairs? Indeed. In fact, more than a dozen lobbyists sponsored the event with Barbour, whose lobbying firm’s clients include BellSouth, CBS, Charles Schwab & Co., Credit Suisse, Glaxo Wellcome, Switzerland, Microsoft, Philip Morris, the electrical utilities industry, the drug industry and Yazoo County. Other lobbyists-for-McCain were Kenneth Duberstein and Vin Weber.

Duberstein, a former chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan, heads a lobbying outfit that works the hallways of Congress on behalf of the HMO industry, the life insurance industry, the cable television industry, General Motors, Goldman, Sachs & Co., Shell Oil and Time Warner. Weber is a former GOP congressman who seeks preferential treatment from his past colleagues for the health care industry. In April, McCain told The Washington Post that there was no contradiction between his criticism of the lobbying/money-rules culture of Washington and his pocketing of lobbyist-generated contributions. The guys who engineered this fundraiser, he asserted, were merely “people I’ve known and done business with for 17 years in Congress.”

McCain’s use of the term “done business” rings ugly. He barks at W.’s lobbyist-backers, but he has a flock of his own. Weber and Duberstein were early advisers in his presidential campaign. And one of the key consultants in the McCain campaign—retained at a salary of $10,000 a month—is Richard Davis, the managing partner of a lobbying shop that has represented the Comsat Corp. and Fruit of the Loom, corporations that have a keen interest in the work of McCain’s commerce committee. (What’s the protocol when someone who is helping you become president asks to speak with you regarding the legislative concern of a corporation paying him big bucks to affect the output of the committee you chair? Do you hand him your latest speech on political reform?)

As Arianna Huffington—who knows something about big-money politics—harrumphed not too long ago, “If Mr. McCain is to run a campaign based on taking the country back from special interests that have been driving so much of the national agenda, his choice of campaign advisers is highly jarring...Mr. McCain will have to be on a mission, with a campaign filled with like-minded people—not with consultants coaching from their old playbooks.”

Does McCain’s closeness to the lobbying gang undermine his call for reform? Certainly. But he’s so damn likable, you want to cut him some slack and say, well, he has to play by the current rules, even if he is seeking change. Alas, that wildcat don’t hunt. McCain has faced little competition in his races back home in Arizona. He has national stature, which affords him the sort of media access other legislators crave. He is in a position where he could lead by example, as well as by press release. Why not say no to special-interest political action committee money? At least he could decline to place corporate lobbyists at the center of his fundraising machine. That should not be such a tough step. But McCain remains in the Washington box. His cries for reform would have more force if he ran free of that crowd.

Not that such a move would help him in the GOP presidential scrimmage. Clearly, McCain wants to position himself as the non-kooky alternative to W. After all, the kooky spot is already filled by never-been-elected millionaire-publisher Steve Forbes. GOP primary voters, though, do not tend to obsess over the filthy campaign system or the tobacco industry. If they go for McCain, it will be for his war record, his cheerful and earnest manner, and his anti-b.s. style. None of that is immediately endangered by his relationship with Washington’s mercenary-fixers. But should McCain become a threat to Bush, McCain’s reform agenda will draw greater scrutiny, and that could lead to his lobbyist habit receiving more attention—perhaps even from those Washington reporters who like him so much.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.

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