Last week,I watched McCain, who's seeking the Republican presidential nomination, worka reporters' lunch that two weeks earlier had hosted Sen. Dianne Feinstein,the California Democrat. An hour with McCain is actually entertaining. As soonas he sat down before these journalists-most of whom represent media based inCalifornia-McCain declared his "intense dislike" of California. Thestate, he said jocularly, steals Arizona's water, and-to make matters worse-eachsummer he is forced to trek to San Diego to visit his constituents, all thoseArizonans who flee to Southern California to escape the oppressive heat of theGrand Canyon State. Reporters eat up such frank talk. The usual script wouldcall for a pol to begin by saying how much he loves the Golden State, whichis all-important in both the primary and general elections. Instead, McCaindumps on it before getting around to the obvious tribute. Granted, it's a sadstatement on Washington that such behavior so distinguishes McCain from thepack. He does have that Dole-like (Bob, not Liddy) acerbic sense of humor-forwhich scribblers are suckers-but without that Dole dourness. Asked why he isnot participating in the upcoming presidential straw poll in Ames, IA, McCainhuffed it is "a meaningless exercise," adding, "it's a wonderful,laudable, money-raising scheme for the Republican Party of Iowa...I commendthem." 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 busingin supporters in order to try to orchestrate a bump. There'shardly a profiler of McCain who doesn't reach for the word "maverick."McCain blasts away at the corruptions of the political system, pitching campaignreform as the foremost reason he's chasing after the top job. "I'm runningto reform government, the campaign finance system," he said, "andonly 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 legislationhe has sponsored for the past several years (the McCain-Feingold bill) triggersapoplexy among his Republican colleagues, who keep scheming successfully againstit. His latest finger-in-the-eye-of-the-GOP is a measure that would eliminategovernment subsidies for the ethanol, sugar, oil and gas industries and apply$5.4 billion of those savings to a school voucher program. Vouchers or favorsfor contributors-that choice the issue in a way that cannot make the Republicanleadership happy. But, as McCain conceded, he has as much chance of successwith this bill as he has of being on the next NASA launch (the legislation wasdefeated on Friday). 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 servingin his administration. But it is on the money-and-politics front that McCainstands out most. Before the reporters, he jabbed at George W. Bush for sendinghundreds of lobbyists, "wearing bib overalls over their suits," toIowa. He lashed out at Haley Barbour, the former Republican Party chairman,for pocketing $1 million as a lobbyist for Big Tobacco.
But waita minute. Wasn't it only four months ago that Barbour was listed as a host fora McCain fundraiser during which McCain raised over $120,000, much of it comingfrom lobbyists representing corporations with interests before the Senate commercecommittee McCain chairs? Indeed. In fact, more than a dozen lobbyists sponsoredthe 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 YazooCounty. Other lobbyists-for-McCain were Kenneth Duberstein and Vin Weber. Duberstein,a former chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan, heads a lobbying outfitthat works the hallways of Congress on behalf of the HMO industry, the lifeinsurance industry, the cable television industry, General Motors, Goldman,Sachs & Co., Shell Oil and Time Warner. Weber is a former GOP congressmanwho seeks preferential treatment from his past colleagues for the health careindustry. In April, McCain told The Washington Post that there was nocontradiction between his criticism of the lobbying/money-rules culture of Washingtonand his pocketing of lobbyist-generated contributions. The guys who engineeredthis fundraiser, he asserted, were merely "people I've known and done businesswith for 17 years in Congress."
McCain'suse 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 hispresidential campaign. And one of the key consultants in the McCain campaign-retainedat a salary of $10,000 a month-is Richard Davis, the managing partner of a lobbyingshop that has represented the Comsat Corp. and Fruit of the Loom, corporationsthat have a keen interest in the work of McCain's commerce committee. (What'sthe protocol when someone who is helping you become president asks to speakwith you regarding the legislative concern of a corporation paying him big bucksto affect the output of the committee you chair? Do you hand him your latestspeech on political reform?) As Arianna Huffington-who knows something aboutbig-money politics-harrumphed not too long ago, "If Mr. McCain is to runa campaign based on taking the country back from special interests that havebeen driving so much of the national agenda, his choice of campaign advisersis highly jarring...Mr. McCain will have to be on a mission, with a campaignfilled with like-minded people-not with consultants coaching from their oldplaybooks."
Does McCain'scloseness to the lobbying gang undermine his call for reform? Certainly. Buthe's so damn likable, you want to cut him some slack and say, well, he has toplay by the current rules, even if he is seeking change. Alas, that wildcatdon'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 legislatorscrave. He is in a position where he could lead by example, as well as by pressrelease. Why not say no to special-interest political action committee money?At least he could decline to place corporate lobbyists at the center of hisfundraising machine. That should not be such a tough step. But McCain remainsin the Washington box. His cries for reform would have more force if he ran free of that crowd.
Not thatsuch a move would help him in the GOP presidential scrimmage. Clearly, McCainwants to position himself as the non-kooky alternative to W. After all, thekooky spot is already filled by never-been-elected millionaire-publisher SteveForbes. GOP primary voters, though, do not tend to obsess over the filthy campaignsystem 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 thatis immediately endangered by his relationship with Washington's mercenary-fixers.But should McCain become a threat to Bush, McCain's reform agenda will drawgreater scrutiny, and that could lead to his lobbyist habit receiving more attention-perhapseven from those Washington reporters who like him so much. We Are The Taxman Duringthe tax cut skirmish in Congress these past few weeks, GOP tax cutters, likedrones, kept repeating the same buzz phrase: we should trust the American peopleto spend their own money. No doubt, this defense of the various GOP tax cutproposals was concocted by consultants and test-driven by pollsters. It suresounds good. But imagine if Republicans really believed that rhetoric. Then there would be no need for any taxes. Follow their logic and you can concludethat each American on his or her own should decide how much to send to the DefenseDepartment. After all, aren't you smart enough to know whether the United Statesneeds one more B-2 bomber? Your money, your decision. Sure, let each Americantaxpayer decide whether to cough up a portion of his or her hard-earned paycheckfor government subsidies for the sugar, ethanol, gas and nuclear industries.(McCain would like that.) Are you a fan of oil depreciation tax breaks? If so,mail Exxon a check. You like AIDS research? Send a money order to the NationalInstitutes of Health. You fancy having secure embassies overseas? Go to yourbank and arrange a monthly electronic transfer to Madeleine Albright. Worriedabout Chinese spies stealing our precious nuclear secrets? Make a donation tothe FBI. If you don't give a shit about Africa, no problem; not a single pennyof your money will go to foreign aid. Heating assistance for low-income elderly?Hold a telethon. Think Congress is mostly a bunch of losers? You know what todo. Perhaps as a test of the people-know-best argument, GOP members of Congresscan eschew any salary and wait for what comes in the mail. But no, sorry, thatwouldn't work. The corporate lobbyists who received billions of dollars in special-interesttax breaks in the GOP tax bills would gladly cover any loss in the income oftheir Republican friends. Just ask Haley Barbour. On a relatedmatter: last week the House of Representatives, led by mad-dog Republican BobBarr, voted to nullify a 1998 District of Columbia initiative that would decriminalizethe medical use of marijuana. (Congress first voted to smother the initiative13 days before it was held, prohibiting the counting of ballots. Exit pollsshowed it passed by 69-31 percent.) What's the connection to the tax cut tussle?Apparently, Republican legislators feel passionately that people are smart enoughto spend their own money, but not sharp enough to decide whether marijuanashould be used for medicinal purposes. Perhaps Barr and the rest are worriedthat if patients smoke too much dope they will no longer be able to spend theirown money intelligently. God on His Side DoesGod have a candidate in the 2000 presidential race? Dan Quayle thinks so. Yes,the former vice president, as reported by The Arizona Republic, toldChristian Coalition director Bobbie Gobel, "If God is in this, I will bethe next president of the United States." What an ego. God, according toQuayle and his fellow Christian believers, allowed his own son to die on a cross.God also has permitted terrible tragedies to occur: war, genocide, famine. Ishe really going to rescue Quayle's campaign at the Ames, Iowa, straw poll? Shouldthat happen, it would be cause to question God's priorities. Actually, God hadHis chance. If He had wanted Quayle to be president, George W. Bush would havebeen struck by lightning. Quayle is not the only GOP presidential candidatewho is counting on divine intervention. While campaigning in Iowa, Sen. OrrinHatch said, "When I filed [to run for president], those who don't knowme thought that was crazy at the last minute. They said it would take a miracleto elect Orrin Hatch president. Well, I want you to know my life has been alife of miracles." If Hatch is counting on a miracle, then there's no reasonfor Republicans to send him campaign contributions. After all, it would be amuch more impressive miracle if he wins with no financial support. Presumably,the number-one miracle-maker could arrange that as easily as a more conventional(that is, contribution-assisted) Hatch victory. MarilynQuayle, too, has some interesting ideas about the political process. In Iowa,she lit into Bush, calling him "the guy that never accomplished anything...theparty frat-boy type" whom the media has glommed onto "because it shareshis Ivy League roots." She may be right in her spiteful characterizationof W., but she knows nothing about the Ivy League. Gore is an Ivy Leaguer (Harvard), and no media type (except The New Republic's Marty Peretz) has "glommed"onto him. And if Mrs. Quayle had the slightest clue about the Ivy League shewould realize that there is no solidarity among its ranks. In fact, a Brownalum would hardly go out of his or her way to help a Yalie. But if she's rightabout the ILers and her husband is right about the spiritual dimension of thisrace, then the Supreme Being should have arranged for Dan to have attended Princetoninstead of DePauw University. Or would such an act of God been beyond even Hispowers? Here's Clyde Lastweek, this column noted that Bill Bradley had lined up his old Knicks teammatesfor a Chicago fundraiser on July 27, but that Walt Frazier was not on Bradley'sbench. Frazier had not been listed on the Bradley campaign's roster of NBA proscommitted to the event. But by game time, Bradley had recruited Frazier, andthe old point guard did appear.