March 12, 2008


Mutual Contempt: The long history of the McCain-Obama grudge (Michael Crowley, 3/26/08, New Republic)

In February 2006, Washington was reeling from a wave of corruption scandals. Indictments had come down on Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and Republican Representative Duke Cunningham. Congress polices itself as willingly as a child cleans his room, but the scandals had jolted both parties into action. Democrats saw ethics reform as a partisan issue that could help win back the House and Senate that November. Republicans, meanwhile, battled furiously to cast corruption as a nonpartisan story about the culture of Washington, not just their party.

At the center of this frenzy were McCain and Obama. McCain had held months of committee hearings about the Abramoff scandal, which he capped with an ethics reform bill cracking down on congressional travel at lobbyists' expense, discounted trips on corporate jets, and his overriding pet obsession, earmark spending.

Obama, meanwhile, had been tapped by then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid as the Democrats' point man on ethics reform. Still several months from signaling a run for president, Obama was a perfect reform messenger--a Washington newcomer sullied by few past transactions with lobbyists. He had also co-sponsored a strong reform measure with Mr. Ethics himself, Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Obama had also led a lobbying reform push in the Illinois state legislature about a decade earlier (for which he was "literally hooted and catcalled" by colleagues, as one recently told The New York Times).

Senate Republicans had little genuine interest in clamping down on their Gucci-loafered friends. But they also knew feigning concern before the voters was a must. Democrats weren't interested in teaming up, rejecting overtures from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and instead holding their own rally for reform at the Library of Congress. So Frist chose his colleague Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania to develop an alternative bill that Republicans could tout. Santorum assembled a group of senators from both parties, among them John McCain. Though personally disliked by many of his GOP colleagues, McCain offered a gold seal of reform credibility thanks to his past battles on campaign finance and pork barrel spending.

On February 1, McCain invited Obama to a meeting of Santorum's working group. Obama accepted, explaining in a press conference that day that he would let the Republicans there know that "I am prepared to work across the aisle and make some things happen." That evening, he joined several other attendees--including Republicans Trent Lott, Susan Collins, David Vitter, and Johnny Isakson, and Democrats Mark Pryor and Joe Lieberman--in Santorum's office. Munching on grapes and other finger food, the senators and their aides had what one participant described as a long and substantive discussion of arcane ethics issues, such as what exact price constitutes a proper reimbursement for travel on a corporate jet. One Democratic aide who attended another meeting with Obama on this subject calls him completely fluent in the topic and better informed than virtually all of his colleagues. But Santorum found Obama off-putting: After showing up late and receiving a "syrupy" welcome from McCain, Santorum says, Obama began preaching down to his colleagues. "He went on and on about how ethical his life is and how he does things more ethically than everybody and on and on and on," Santorum says. "And, when we tried to come back to substance, we heard more about how he does things. Which is all really interesting but not particularly productive in terms of trying to find common ground to get things done." (Though Santorum has obvious partisan reasons to bad-mouth Obama, his response suggests there could be limits to a President Obama's ability to charm D.C. Republicans.)

A day after attending the confab, Obama sent McCain a letter thanking him for the invitation but also indicating that he preferred a reform bill championed by Harry Reid and other Democratic leaders, which had no Republican sponsors.

McCain went ballistic. "I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere," he wrote back in a letter. McCain said Democratic leaders were simply using ethics as a political club in the fall elections, and he hinted that Obama had decided to carry Reid's water rather than negotiate a bipartisan bill. "I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party's effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman Senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness. Again, I have been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn't always a priority for every one of us."

In McCainland, the episode had revealed Obama as a mere Democratic partisan masquerading as a bridge-builder. "There was all this chest-pounding about how he was going to reach across the aisle and work in a bipartisan manner to solve all America's problems," says former longtime McCain adviser John Weaver. "And up comes an issue which seems perfectly suited for him, and he met Senator McCain, who has correctly long been the champion of this ... [and] he decided for whatever reason he was going to take the more partisan position."

"It was evident to me from day one that Obama's instructions were to make sure this doesn't happen," Santorum adds. "I'm not blaming Obama here--he was Harry Reid's surrogate."

McCain had a point. Obama seemed to have chosen his party's interests over the bipartisan approach to reform he had touted--an interpretation conceded to me by another pro-reform Democrat close to the process.

To be fair, it's not a certainty, should Senator Obama ever get around to trying to pass any legislation about anything on his own, that Maverick would be helpful, though we're unlikely ever to know.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 12, 2008 6:09 PM

"One Democratic aide who attended another meeting with Obama on this subject [what exact price constitutes a proper reimbursement for travel on a corporate jet] calls him completely fluent in the topic"

I'm sure that Sen. Obama (D-Rezko) is. I'm sure he is...

Posted by: b at March 12, 2008 6:54 PM

Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff

Gimme a break. There's no point to reading further, especially an article published in a magazine that specializes in fiction.

( If you are going to get your legislation passed, you are going to go after members of the majority party. Right now I'm sure there are hundreds of "Democrat superlobbyists" working the halls. And some of them might even be citizens. )

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 12, 2008 7:32 PM