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Thursday, February 21, 2008

McCain is Bush

There's a disconnect in American politics. While polls show that politicians join journalists and attorneys at the low end of respected professionals spectrum, we expect political candidates to be squeaky-clean and angelic. We can't possibly reconcile these two perceptions, so maybe we're just looking for candidates we can pretend are perfect models of human behavior. It's not so much a matter of being perfect, as it is of looking perfect. Everyone knows it's not true.

A New York Times story that broke last night illustrates my point.

Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers.

A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

My reaction here was "so what?" I mean, we're not hiring the church choir director here.

Actually, let me qualify that "so what"; I don't care if McCain had an affair eight years ago, but I do care that he was way too close to a lobbyist. And, despite the media coverage of the revelation, that was the focus of the story. The headline isn't "Horndog McCain Gets Himself Some Lobbyist Ass," it's "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk." It's actually a substantial piece of investigative journalism that the rest of the media have turned into the sex scandal of the moment. The problem isn't that McCain may or may not have slept with a 40 year-old lobbyist, the problem is that McCain may or may not have used his position to swing deals her way. According to the piece, "[N]ews organizations reported that Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist’s client," and, "some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement."

The problem isn't that McCain may have been unfaithful, the problem is that McCain may be crooked. I could give a crap about the former, but the latter is the sort of thing that makes a difference. And, McCain, despite anything else he may be, is nobody's fool -- it's the latter that he dealt with this morning at a press conference.

"I've served this nation honorably for more than half a century," McCain told reporters. "At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust." No ridiculous Larry Craig declarations of love for his wife, no pretense of offense to his honor, no calling on Jesus and the "sanctity of marriage." McCain knows where the actual scandal is, even if most of the media hasn't gotten there yet.

And McCain's Democratic opponents need to recognize this, as well. I've said from the beginning that dems need to run against George W. Bush, no matter who the eventual nominee would be. There's no better Bush surrogate than John McCain. This latest scandal is just one more example. The Bush administration has let lobbyists write policy. The problem isn't that McCain was in bed with a lobbyist literally, but figuratively. This is Bush-style governance. Let me give you an example:

Union of Concerned Scientists:

A group of prominent scientists today [Feb. 14] called on the next president and Congress to end political interference in science and establish conditions that would allow federal science to flourish. Organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the group released a statement at a press conference during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting.

"Good federal policy depends upon reliable and robust scientific work," said Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at UCS. "When science is falsified, fabricated or censored, Americans' health and safety suffer."

The statement specifically calls for the next administration and Congress to ensure that federal scientists have the freedom to publicly communicate their findings; publish their work; disclose misrepresentation, censorship or other abuses; and have their technical work evaluated by peers -- all without fear of retribution.

"Scientific integrity is the bedrock on which the federal science establishment must rest," says Environmental Protection Agency scientist Bill Hirzy. "Unfortunately, too many EPA scientists have had to fight interference from political or private sector interests." The religious extremists interfere with federal family planning programs and issues like stem cell research, lobbyists for oil and energy industries write federal policy on conservation and global climate change, for example.

More than one hundred Bush administration officials were former lobbyists in 2004. "The FDA is now in the business of helping lawsuit defendants, specifically the pharmaceutical companies," said University of Cincinnati law professor James O'Reilly, offering one example of how Bush's cozy relationship with lobbyists influences public policy.

"When you go to work in lobbying, it is clearly understood and accepted that your job is to advocate for the interests of those who hired you," said University of Southern California ethics and government professor Terry L. Cooper. "When you go to work in government, you are supposed to be responsible for upholding and maintaining whatever you can identify as the public interest." Unfortunately, the Bush administration couldn't care less about the public interest. The US is a nation of consumers, not citizens, and the less power a consumer has, the better things are for the producer.

And, before the NYT broke, McCain's relationship with lobbyists had gotten him in hot water. In fact, the piece mentions his earlier scandal, saying, "It had been just a decade since an official favor for a friend with regulatory problems had nearly ended Mr. McCain’s political career by ensnaring him in the Keating Five scandal. In the years that followed, he reinvented himself as the scourge of special interests, a crusader for stricter ethics and campaign finance rules, a man of honor chastened by a brush with shame."

In that scandal, lobbyists pushed deregulation to the point of absurdity -- a move that resulted in the collapse of a huge number of Savings and Loans in the US. The parallel to the current mortgage meltdown isn't all that hard to draw. McCain has since invested a lot of political capital in remaking himself as a legislative Boy Scout, but this latest scandal should make serious observers question whether or not John's actually changed at all. It doesn't look like it.

The two remaining Democrats will be debating tonight. If they're smart, the most common words they use will be "George W. Bush and John McCain." If they're dumb, it'll be about each other. And it only takes one to be dumb. If Clinton sticks with her strategy, Obama will take the brunt of her criticism and McCain might as well not exist.

And that's not the way this campaign should go. The message should be that McCain isn't like Bush, but that McCain is Bush. He's with the president on torture, Iraq, tax cuts, and -- now -- the influence of lobbyists. McCain isn't that perfect candidate we all pretend exists out there. But it's not because he may have slept around once, but because he's no different from Bush.

In an election about change, that's more than a fine distinction.


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Emily said...

Thoughtful, well-written post. I've been trying to wrap my head around just what I thought was off about mainstream coverage of the McCain story, and you've hit the nail right on the head.

What I'm still looking for, however, is some concrete evidence that he did favors for this lobbyist. So far, all they've got are anonymous testimonies and hearsay. I'm not saying he's innocent, but it'd be nice to have something a bit more solid to back up a big accusation like this.

Television Spy said...

Interesting, but I'd say McCain is even worse - he's not even embarrassed or forgiving for his racist tirade.