You wouldn't know it to look at them, but political consultants are as faddish as anyone else. And the current voguish advice among the back-room set is: Go after your opponent's strengths. So in the first volley of the general election campaign, Barack Obama has attacked John McCain for being too close to lobbyists. His assault is part of this week's Democratic chorus: McCain isn't really the anti-special interest reformer he pretends to be. He's more tainted than his reputation suggests.
Well, anything is worth trying, I suppose, but there is the little problem of his record. McCain has fought one battle after another against lobbyists and special interests. And while I don't have space to describe all his tussles, or even the lesser ones like his fight with the agricultural lobby against sugar subsidies, I thought that, amidst all these charges, it might be worth noting some of the McCain highlights from the past dozen years.
In 1996, McCain was one of five senators, and the only Republican, to vote against the Telecommunications Act. He did it because he believed the act gave away too much to the telecommunications companies, and protected them from true competition. He noted that AT&T alone gave $780,000 to Republicans and $456,000 to Democrats in the year leading up to the vote.
In 1998, McCain championed anti-smoking legislation that faced furious opposition from the tobacco lobby. McCain guided the legislation through the Senate Commerce Committee on a 19-1 vote, but then the tobacco companies struck back. They hired 200 lobbyists and spent $40 million in advertising (three times as much as the Harry and Louise health care reform ads). Many of the ads attacked McCain by name, accusing him of becoming a big government liberal. After weeks of bitter debate, the bill died on the Senate floor.
In 2000, McCain ran for president and reiterated his longstanding opposition to ethanol subsidies. Though it crippled his chances in Iowa, he argued that ethanol was a wasteful giveaway. A recent study in the journal Science has shown that when you take all impacts into consideration, ethanol consumption increases greenhouse gas emissions compared to regular gasoline. Unlike, say, Barack Obama, McCain still opposes ethanol subsidies.
In 2002, McCain capped his long push for campaign finance reform by passing the McCain-Feingold Act. People can argue about the effectiveness of the act, but one thing is beyond dispute. It was a direct assault on lobbyist power, and earned McCain undying enmity among many important parts of the Republican coalition, who felt their soft money influence was being diminished.
In 2003, the Senate nearly passed the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. The act was opposed by the usual mix of energy, auto and mining companies. But moderate environmental groups were thrilled that McCain-Lieberman was able to attract more than 40 votes in the Senate.
In 2004, McCain launched a frontal assault on the leasing contract the Pentagon had signed with Boeing for aerial refueling tankers. McCain's investigation exposed billions of dollars of waste and layers of contracting irregularity.
In 2005, McCain led the congressional investigation into the behavior of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The investigation was exceedingly unpleasant for Republicans, because it exposed shocking misbehavior by important conservative activists.
Over the past few years, McCain has stepped up his longstanding assault on earmarks. Every year, McCain goes to the Senate floor to ridicule the latest batch of earmarks, and every year his colleagues and the lobbyists fume. For years, McCain has proposed legislative remedies — greater transparency, a 60-vote supermajority requirement — that were brutally unpopular with many colleagues until, suddenly, now.
Over the course of his career, McCain has tried to do the impossible. He has challenged the winds of the money gale. He has sometimes failed and fallen short. And there have always been critics who cherry-pick his compromises, ignore his larger efforts and accuse him of being a hypocrite.
This is, of course, the gospel of the mediocre man: to ridicule somebody who tries something difficult on the grounds that the effort was not a total success. But any decent person who looks at the McCain record sees that while he has certainly faltered at times, he has also battled concentrated power more doggedly than any other legislator. If this is the record of a candidate with lobbyists on his campaign bus, then every candidate should have lobbyists on the bus.
And here's the larger point: We're going to have two extraordinary nominees for president this year. This could be one of the great general election campaigns in American history. The only thing that could ruin it is if the candidates become demagogues and hurl accusations at each other that are an insult to reality and common sense.
Maybe Obama can start this campaign over.
c.2008 New York Times News Service