Given Sen. John McCain's propensity to stray off the Republican ranch and courageously speak his mind, he's been a pretty loyal soldier over the last two years. But last week he finally had enough and opened fire on the White House.
The last straw for McCain was the blatant way the Bush administration subverted campaign finance reform by breaking a promise it had made to him.
Back in July, the White House cut a deal with McCain: The president would appoint ethics lawyer and reform advocate Ellen Weintraub to one of the three Democratic positions on the six-member Federal Election Commission; in exchange, McCain would stop holding up a slew of Bush judicial and administrative nominations he had been blocking for leverage. Reformers saw the Weintraub appointment as crucial since the FEC was in the process of deciding the specifics of how McCain-Feingold -- reluctantly signed into law by the president last spring -- would be implemented.
But in a move McCain called "calculated, orchestrated, and cynical," the White House held off appointing Weintraub until last Friday, the day after the FEC had finished carving up the new rules, leaving gaping loopholes through which millions in soft money can continue to be funneled to the political parties. This was exactly the kind of thing the new law was designed to prevent.
McCain was particularly incensed by the baldfaced way the White House reneged on their agreement. "They flat-out broke their word," he told me. "We usually do business in Washington with a handshake. From now on, that will be very hard to do with them. I'll have to question the sincerity of any promises they make."
The senator also decried the shameless way the White House tried to collect P.R. points by hopping on the reform bandwagon and then doing everything in its power to ensure that the bandwagon wasn't going anywhere. "While the administration wanted to share in the widespread public approval of campaign finance reform by having the president sign the legislation into law," McCain said, "he's cooperating behind the scenes with opponents of the law in Congress and on the commission to weaken it as much as possible." If there is a standard M.O. in this White House, this is it.
As a result, McCain predicts that the next few years will bring a persistent rash of new scandals stemming from the ongoing flood of money into the political process. "It's inevitable," he told me. "More money mixed with more loopholes will lead to more paybacks like the one Eli Lilly was given in the homeland security bill. But politicians have become completely addicted to money, so trying to change the system is like trying to take heroin from a heroin addict."
With Republicans controlling the White House and both branches of Congress for the first time in 46 years, we can expect corporate America to go on a D.C. shopping spree in an all-out effort to purchase a wide range of legislation. Actually it's more of an investment spree: A few hundred thousand in cash now will generate a few hundred million in the next legislative cycle. It's safer than bonds. Factor in the Democrats' growing reliance on corporate donations, and all the conditions seem set for an unprecedented special-interest onslaught.
"I think this is going to be big money's 'perfect storm,'" Nick Nyhart, who heads Public Campaign, told me. Except in this version, it's the public that gets tossed overboard.
For a coming attraction of what that looming perfect storm will look like, take a look at the 20 days leading up to the Nov. 5 election, when the two parties were deluged with $24 million in soft money donations -- a financial downpour of over $1 million a day.
"I know firsthand, and from working with colleagues, just how beholden elected officials and their parties can become to those who contribute to their campaigns and their parties' coffers," says former Sen. Warren Rudman, winning this week's "Duh" award, and reminding us that a quid pro quo always goes along with that kind of dough.
Among the things being swept away by the tsunami of money are the foundations of our democracy and the values of our elected officials. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., recently said that the never-ending need to cozy up to donors asking for money had left him "feeling like a cheap prostitute who'd had a busy day." A prostitute, maybe, but not a very cheap one.
With the big-money perfect storm fast approaching, McCain realizes that reformers are in for a rough ride, but he has vowed to keep up the fight -- in Congress, in the courts and in the court of public opinion.
And now that this veteran warrior has taken off the kid gloves, things could get very, very interesting indeed.