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Watchdogs Rethink McCain

When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ran for president in 2000, the defining issue of his candidacy wasn’t fighting terrorists or spreading American-style democracy. It was campaign-finance reform.

McCain lost the nomination, but he won a fierce following among a coterie of Washington-based non-profit groups. Since Watergate, these government "watchdog" groups like Public Citizen, Common Cause, Democracy 21 and Public Campaign Action Fund have been fighting what they regard as the corrupting influence of money in politics.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

It seemed that never before had their mission had such a high-profile spokesman. After the 2000 election, McCain and his co-sponsor, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), embarked on a cross-country tour, sponsored by Public Citizen and Common Cause, championing their campaign-finance reform bill. Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen since the 1980s, called McCain a "hero" for battling a Washington addiction to special-interest money that she likened to crack cocaine.

During the 2008 presidential election cycle, however, Public Citizen singled out McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, for a different reason — getting far and away the most money from lobbyists of all the major party candidates. In fact, throughout his presidential campaign, McCain has given watchdogs plenty to worry about. He has backed off on further campaign-finance reform legislation. And by using public money as collateral for a loan, the one-time face of campaign-finance reform may have himself violated campaign-finance laws.

Back in 2000, money-in-politics watchdog groups had salivated at the thought of a McCain presidency. Now many might cast a ballot for his opponent — even though Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) opted out of the public financing program last week. For the watchdog groups are still split over whether McCain is just de-emphasizing campaign finance and lobbying reform because it’s not popular with a major part of the GOP base and leadership, or if he’s abandoned the cause. Meanwhile, Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has emerged as a more consistent, if less accomplished, supporter of reform causes.

"On reform issues," said David Donnelly, president of Public Campaign Action Fund. "You see McCain slipping and Obama accelerating."

In fact, Obama’s decision to reject public financing for the general election does little to change this. McCain’s campaign made an issue out of the decision, saying that Obama broke a promise to use public money. But for watchdogs, a more important issue than Obama pulling out of public financing this year is McCain withdrawing his support for a bill to change the campaign financing system for future presidential elections. The idea of the bill, originally co-sponsored by McCain and Feingold, whose GOP co-sponsor is now Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), was to create incentives so that all presidential candidates enter the public-financing system. Obama supports the bill.

"While Obama has not opted in for public financing in this election cycle," said Donnelly. "He’s unequivocal about fixing our future election cycles."

Craig Holman, campaign-finance lobbyist for Public Citizen, agrees with Donnelly’s upbeat assessment. "Obama has really taken the lead when it’s come to campaign finance and lobbying and ethics reform," Holman said, noting that Obama, with Feingold, got through a more stringent lobbying and ethics reform law than one originally proposed by McCain.

That McCain could lose the reformer vote would have seemed unfathomable back in 2002. That’s when the Arizona senator was expending his political capital to work with Feingold on a bill that would ban soft money– unlimited contributions, usually by corporations or unions that lobby Washington, to a political party that get funneled to candidates. In 2002, despite loud objections from Republican Senate leaders Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Mitch McConnell (D-Ky.), the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act passed the Senate and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

As late as 2006, McCain was still attacking special-interest money in politics. Instead of answering questions about his ties to K Street lobbyists, it was McCain doing the interrogating. He chaired Senate hearings into super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s de-frauding of Native American clients. And that’s when he proposed legislation intended to combat the "revolving door" between lawmakers and lobbyists.

"McCain has a very long and intense history of promoting campaign-finance reform," said Holman, "as well as lobbying and ethics reform."

But for Holman, the McCain campaigns’ ties to lobbyists are too great to ignore. "McCain turned early and frequently to the lobbying community in his presidential campaign" Holman said. "K Street is well-incorporated."

A January report by Public Citizen revealed that McCain had at least 59 federal lobbyists that bundle money — that is, collect donations from friends and colleagues — for his presidential campaign. The next closest candidate was former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — with 33. Obama does not accept money from lobbyists.

McCain, whose campaign did not respond to questions for this article, has tried to separate himself from lobbyists, He announced last month that all current registered lobbyists would be purged from his campaign. But former lobbyists retain key positions, like campaign manager Rick Davis, who previously worked for Verizon and other telecommunications giants.

"He’s so invested in the lobbying world now that I fear any impulse for reform has been beaten out of him," said Donnelly, who believes that McCain has "turned his back" on reforming money in politics.

Other watchdogs, though, were reluctant to conclude that McCain has said goodbye to his past. "I’m not convinced that the lobbying issue trumps McCain-Feingold," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington non-profit that monitors money in politics.

Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause, says McCain is the victim of a political rat race he’s tried to end. "The reality is that we have a broken campaign finance system," she said, "and you got to do what you’ve got to do to become president."

Holman of Public Citizen said that because McCain "has such a long history" of reform "it’s hard to see him turning his back on it." But on the campaign-finance issues of the day, Holman and other watchdogs disagree with Boyle, arguing that McCain is adding to the problems that come with private money in politics.

One example is that McCain, in December, used the promise of public money as collateral to take out a loan for his then cash-strapped campaign. Federal Election Commission Chairman David Mason questioned whether the loan violated campaign finance law. McCain has maintained that the loan was legal, but the Bush administration has quietly decided not to re-nominate Mason.

In 2002, Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, called McCain a "genuine hero" for advancing the issue of campaign finance reform. But last month he said the ouster of Mason was a "bald-faced and brazen attempt to wrongly manipulate an important enforcement decision."

Outside observers say the presence of Obama, another self-styled reformer, makes it easier for watchdogs to question actions taken by the McCain campaign. "McCain was a hero to good government groups when he was viewed within the prism of Republican senators," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Now McCain is viewed relative to Obama who may have a stronger record on reform subjects."

McCain may have once been a hero to the Washington reform community. But in their uphill battle to clean up money in politics, watchdogs– who as non-profits cannot officially endorse presidential candidates– must always be on prowl for new politicians, like Obama, who could advance their causes. "We have a proven and solid history of working with [McCain]," said Boyle of Common Cause. But then she added, "Of course, we’ll work with anyone who works with us."

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