The boomerang effect

Everything looked peachy for Sen. John McCain's "outsider-reformer" campaign until his actions as an "insider" blew up in his face.

Published January 12, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

For several years, ever since he was caught up in the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal, Sen. John McCain has railed against the campaign-finance system. As a prominent proponent of outrage, McCain has been pushing the leading piece of reform legislation in Congress (though it is a modest bill that addresses only a few of the most egregious excesses).

His crusade has put him at odds with his own party, as the Republican leadership in the Senate has killed his legislation with parliamentary manuevers. All of this has helped him develop the image of a maverick reformer. That reputation was dented this month -- just as the presidential preseason was ending -- by revelations he put pressure on the Federal Communications Commission to make a decision that concerned one of his campaign contributors. But Lettergate was important not for what it revealed about McCain but for how it illuminated the difficulty of being an inside-the-system reformer.

McCain's recent troubles spring from his practice of raising money in accordance with the rules of the corrupt system he bemoans. He attacks special-interest politics, but he has not been shy about pocketing donations from corporations and lobbyists who have business before his Commerce Committee. He has permitted corporate lobbyists -- the influence-peddlers who try to skew legislation to suit the needs of their clients, rather than the public at large -- to host fund-raisers for him.

Doing so has left him open to the charge that he is working both sides -- acting the give-'em-hell reformer, while collecting the big bucks. It's not that he does not realize the danger. He has asserted repeatedly that all members of the Senate and the House are tainted by the status quo, whether or not they explicitly trade favors for contributions. The flood of special-interest money in the system, he argues, undermines the entire institution and fosters the appearance of pervasive corruption, if not actual corruption.

He's right about that. Campaign contributions provide a skeptical citizen cause to question the integrity of most legislators -- even a reformer like McCain.

For instance, this past year, McCain helped thwart a bill which would stop "lemon-laundering" -- that's when unscrupulous car dealers rebuild car wrecks in one state and then go to another state to obtain supposedly clean titles that hide the history of these vehicles. The bill was offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and supported by state attorneys general and consumer groups.

Instead, McCain signed on to a much weaker alternative pushed by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and backed by auto dealers. Coincidentally or not, the automotive industry gave $11.5 million to congressional candidates in the last election, with 74 percent of that going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In fact, McCain was the top recipient in the Senate of funds from the transportation industry, as might be expected of the chairman of the committee that oversees most transportation issues. Was McCain's endorsement of the weaker bill influenced by this flow of money? Who can tell? But you'd have to be a fool not to be suspicious.

This is an all-too common predicament. Look at Sen. Orrin Hatch, another Republican presidential wannabe. Last year Hatch supported legislation that would extend Schering-Plough's patent on Claritin, the allergy drug. This extension would cost consumers an estimated $7.3 billion. Yet Hatch sided with the drug manufacturer. He also pocketed at least $16,000 in contributions from the company, and he traveled on its corporate jet on several occasions. (Hatch did reimburse the firm the cost of a first-class ticket, but this barely covered the true cost of using the aircraft.)

Certainly, the money and the jet makes one wonder whether Hatch decided the issue purely on the merits. Hatch keeps saying that he is a candidate of "skinny cats," as opposed to fat-cat contributors. He, too, is open to the charge of hypocrisy. At least, he doesn't claim to be reform-minded.

McCain has a tough path to walk, that of the insider-reformer. The anti-reformers are always gunning for him, and any action of his connected to any contributor becomes ammunition.

Others have faced this problem of proclaiming themselves reformers while exploiting the loose restrictions of current campaign law. Bill Clinton, as a presidential candidate, said he was for reform. But when it came to collecting money in order to compete with the GOP, he was a champion rule-bender, if not worse. His call for reform -- sincere or not -- was rendered laughable by his soft-money scheming, the White House coffees, the Lincoln bedroom sleepovers and so much more.

There may only be one way out: A would-be reformer should walk the talk. McCain has not had serious competition in Arizona for his Senate seat. Why didn't he choose to live by a higher standard and eschew money for his Senate war chest from the corporations and lobbyists who have business before his committee? He still would have won reelection to the Senate.

Granted, adopting this purist position would have been much harder for his presidential campaign. But McCain knows that the campaign-finance system is so fishy that practically anyone who operates within it -- including a legislator who calls for change -- is going to pick up some of the stench. And the status-quoticians are always waiting to point a finger at a reformer and say, "See, he stinks, too!" Discredit the messenger, and you discredit the message.

Because he tried to balance on a tightrope -- bash politics-as-usual, raise money as usual -- McCain finds himself in a fix. The letter he wrote the Federal Communications Commission asking for a quick vote on a deal involving Paxson Communications -- a company that had contributed over $20,000 to his campaign and had provided its corporate jet for his use -- blew up in his face.

As the Washington Post wrote, "The episode offers a classic example of how Washington works, intertwining campaign contributions, corporate lobbyists and a powerful committee chairman.

For good or bad, what McCain did was not that extraordinary, and it apparently violated no rules or laws. "Senators do this all the time," says a Democratic Senate aide, "especially with the FCC, which is maddeningly slow."

In an effort to stop the story from swamping his campaign, McCain released a stack of letters in which he had asked various agencies to act on a matter. In 15 instances, these requests involved contributors to his campaign; most of the 500 letters related to individuals and companies that had not donated money to McCain.

Bean-counting aside, this tempest demonstrated that when a politician who plays by the rules of the campaign system dares to criticize that system, he is vulnerable to being branded a hypocrite.

Forget Caesar's wife. An insider-reformer has to be cleaner than Felix Unger. McCain may be a campaign finance neat-freak, but not enough to cause him to reject special-interest contributions. Consequently, he sets himself up as an easy target. He is now learning how hard it is to maintain a clean image while functioning in the current system, and the price of that lesson may well be his presidential campaign.

By David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

MORE FROM David Corn

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Campaign Finance John Mccain R-ariz.