Maverick or Manueverer?

Ever since "authenticity" became the quality we most value in our politicians, its converse, "hypocrisy," has been the political vice of which we are most conscious. Thus, those who have noticed that Sen. John McCain enjoys a reputation as a "maverick" who "stands up to special interests" while leading a campaign that is operated and funded entirely by lobbyists have seen this as a contradiction. Is McCain a hypocrite, or perhaps a divided soul, with the angelic maverick voice of reform perched on one shoulder and a diabolical little influence-peddler on the other? Who, journalists ask, is the real John McCain?

But just to ask the question in this way is to misunderstand not only McCain but the nature of lobbying, power, and the way concepts like "reform" and "maverick" are tamed and warped in Washington.

Most heavily lobbied fights, especially over the telecom regulations that come before the Commerce Committee, which McCain chaired for years, and the billion-dollar contracts scrutinized by the Armed Services Committee, where he also serves, do not pit special interests against the public interest. They are battles among very wealthy people and companies over which of them will get much richer through a publicly conferred advantage. It's easy to be a maverick standing up to one special interest while serving the interests of another.

Those who credit McCain with "a solid record on reform," like Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, often cite McCain's investigation of the contracting process for a fleet of Air Force tankers, which sent several Boeing executives and Department of Defense procurement officials to jail. While the wrongdoing McCain exposed was real, his achievement is colored by new information that several of the lobbyists closest to him and who now staff his campaign were employed on behalf of Boeing's competitor for the contract, the parent company of Airbus.

McCain also discovered a unique means of exercising power during the Bush years, after almost two decades as a notably ineffectual legislator. When bipartisanship and common sense were scarce resources, McCain realized he could effectively corner the market on both. Wherever there seemed the possibility of a deal -- on climate change, immigration, taxes, or torture -- McCain swept in to position himself as the one Republican ready to break with party orthodoxy and negotiate. Many of his compromises fizzled, but in other cases, by grabbing the center chair even on issues well outside the purview of his committees, he was able to work a deal that was acceptable to his K Street allies or to the White House, as he did on the torture bill. Even when nothing came of these efforts, he was able to block anyone else from taking that center spot, perhaps someone who might have done more with the opportunity.

For a lobbyist, having an ally in that critical swing position is far more valuable than having a blind loyalist on one side of the table. The role was invaluable for McCain -- making him, for a time, the second or third most powerful figure in Washington -- but also for his lobbyist allies. Consider: If you were lobbying for an industry that wanted to avoid regulation under some new climate-change legislation, whom would you rather have as your friend when the deal is cut? A fanatic who rejects all evidence of human-made climate change, such as Sen. James Inhofe? Or a legislator known for bipartisanship, who will be in the room at the end with the power to shape or break the deal by walking away?

McCain's role in campaign-finance and lobbying reform epitomizes his political success -- and his programmatic failure. While passing the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002 was a remarkable feat of political maneuvering, the act has done little to moderate the role of money in politics -- after all, the worst scandals in congressional history arose after its passage. Its most notable effect was to give McCain virtually total control over the reform "movement" (a poor word for a group of understaffed Washington offices), blocking more ambitious opportunities to change Washington from the outside. While his own reform agenda is now minimal -- he still says he wants to limit the independent groups known as 527s, although his campaign cannot succeed without them -- many reform groups are so devoted to him that they remained painfully silent when McCain gamed the public-financing system for the primaries, taking a loan based on public financing while avoiding the system's spending limits.

There is no paradox, contradiction, or hypocrisy in McCain. He's a straight-forward Washington creature, one who figured out some new ways to exercise power on behalf of the usual interests.

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