Why is McCain backing off?

The puzzling decision to let Bush off the hook about crony-style campaign fund-raising could sink the Arizona senator's insurgency.

Published February 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

It's too bad, in these final days before the pivotal South Carolina primary, that John McCain has decided to wimp out by refusing to go "negative" against George W. Bush. For reasons known only to McCain, the born-again Republican reformer has chosen to avoid directly challenging Bush on the very issue where the Texas governor is most vulnerable -- namely the takeover of the American political system, and in particular the Republican Party, by corporate lobbyists and special interests.

What makes McCain's decision all the more puzzling is that it is the electorate's deep disgust with the existing system that has motivated McCain's own insurgent campaign in the first place, to the point where he now seems to have a legitimate shot at wrestling the Republican presidential nomination away from the well-financed Bush.

As McCain understands better than anybody, the Texas governor is essentially a creature of moneyed interests and lobbyists who have wagered upward of $70 million on the belief that he will preserve their privileges as assiduously in the White House as he has in the statehouse in Austin.

It is McCain's commitment to campaign-finance reform that truly distinguishes him from his front-running rival. On too many other issues, from abortion to school prayer, there isn't much to choose between them. Disquiet over the perverse influence of money in politics is a wedge issue that actually unites more than it divides: "Us" is everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or political creed, while "them" is a tiny group of high-rollers and their professional dependents in the party establishment. More than any other candidate, it is Bush who represents "them."

Until his campaign's comeuppance in New Hampshire, the cocky governor enjoyed soft, generally favorable press coverage that treated his eventual nomination as virtually inevitable. That has changed, of course; a speck of blood on the leader always tempts the press pack to jump on him and start gnawing.

Yet even now, precious little ink or air time has been devoted to exploring the Texas-size list of donors and deals behind the Bush bandwagon. This, despite efforts by public interest groups in his home state, such as Texans for Public Justice, that have laid out in detail many of the dubious relationships between Bush and his most generous supporters. To those who gave, much has been returned -- in the form of government favors, contracts, appointments and legislation.

With a few outstanding exceptions, however, the mainstream media have generally ignored the conflicts of interest and self-serving history of Dubya and his donors, preferring instead to focus on tactics and personalities. This is especially disappointing in a year when the malignant influence of money has become such a compelling theme throughout the political culture. But Bush is so supremely confident about the laziness of the press corps that he is able to launch without irony attacks on "Chairman" McCain as a "Washington insider" who has sold his influence as head of the Senate Commerce Committee.

So far, Bush's strategy has succeeded. While McCain has been forced to cope with several stories that suggest his Senate decisions have been warped by contributors, Bush has largely escaped similar investigative scrutiny. One reason may be that McCain's financial peccadilloes as a ranking senator are more easily uncovered by the Washington press corps than those of Bush, the governor of a large but distant and unfamiliar state.

But considering the resources available to the national media, that is hardly a convincing excuse. In fact, some excellent exposes of Bush's cozy ties with contributors have already been done, by daily newspapers in Austin, Houston and Corpus Christi. Those stories ought to be rereported, expanded and presented to American voters before Bush secures the Republican presidential nomination.

Though many in the media seem to be infatuated with McCain, few are inclined to do any investigative work that might benefit him. Therefore, if McCain wants to find a way to forcefully counter Bush's insult that he is a "senator-for-sale," he had better not wait for the press to dig it up. Instead, the senator could begin at Tuesday night's debate by asking his opponent some tough, specific questions about the dozens of corporate-linked "Pioneers" who have each pledged to raise $100,000 or more for the Bush campaign.

For instance, he could ask the governor about Steven Hicks, whose brother Thomas O. Hicks bought the Texas Rangers baseball team and made Bush a multimillionaire. Tom Hicks is a prominent investment banker who, thanks to legislation signed by Bush, was able to control billions in University of Texas investments with almost no public oversight.

McCain could also ask Bush about several other Pioneers who were awarded hundreds of millions in public dollars from the university fund, such as Adele Hall, Sam and Charles Wyly and Lee Bass.

McCain might also urge Bush to explain the nexus between the $10 million investment awarded by university trustees to the Carlyle Group, a powerhouse Republican investment bank based in Washington, just after Bush took office in 1995 -- and the fact that Bush had enjoyed a lucrative, undemanding corporate directorship provided by Carlyle right up until he ran for governor in 1994. Now his father, the former president, works for Carlyle, which also employs such old Bush administration figures as the former secretary of state, James Baker, and former economic advisor Richard Darman. Carlyle's lobbyist and consultant Wayne Berman, another former Bush appointee, was also one of the earliest Pioneers to sign up with Bush last year.

If those relationships seem too complex for discussion in a television debate, McCain could stick to simpler embarrassments -- such as the vast sums vouchsafed to Bush by big oil companies, big health-care firms and other big business entities that have gotten tender consideration from the governor regarding their tax and regulatory burdens. None of this is a secret in Texas, where many voters seem to think it's all just fine. But what is business as usual down there may not be quite as acceptable in other primary states such as California and New York, at a moment when campaign-finance abuses have become a fashionable topic again.

For McCain to continue his crusade, he will have to maintain the offensive. Allowing himself to be pilloried by Bush as a special-interest senator without fighting back is a strategy of surrender. It's time for some straight talk about the Texas governor, who preaches compassionate conservatism but practices crony capitalism.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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George W. Bush John Mccain