The Tiny Battles of a Has-Been Candidate

Imagine that you pick up your copy of The New York Times and see a front-page article proclaiming that John Kerry is now such the linchpin of debate in Washington that he has taken "center stage." Then you surf over to one of the Sunday morning talk shows to find George Stephanopoulos or Bob Schieffer interviewing Michael Dukakis. Then you turn your radio and hear a story on NPR about Bob Dole's objections to the president's latest legislative initiative. You'd probably ask yourself, What is going on here? Why am I being forced to listen to these people?

Such a thing would never happen, of course. Once somebody loses a presidential campaign, he may continue in elected office and may even have some interesting things to say about policy. But unless he drops hints about running for president again, the media will ignore him. Unless, that is, he's John McCain.

For some reason, as we are now learning, "John McCain objected to the president's plan" is supposed to be news. That front-page article in The New York Times told happily how "McCain has quickly reclaimed a place on center stage in Washington." And how did he reclaim that place on center stage? Well, he made some speeches on the floor of the Senate and gave some interviews.

Any of the few hundred other members of Congress who have done exactly the same things in recent weeks would be happy to be declared the inhabitants of center stage. But they don't get the Sunday show invites or the fawning profiles in the paper of record. These things happen because of choices made by journalists, producers, and editors. And they still choose to give McCain all this attention. After all, at a time of economic crisis, it's vital to hear from the man who believed, "There is no one in America that is more respected on the issue of economics than Senator Phil Gramm" (yes, that's "nation of whiners" Phil Gramm) and who famously said, "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should." Though in fairness, he did quickly add, "I've got Greenspan's book."

Given that McCain was not only a presidential loser but one whose chances of winning evaporated when the economy came to dominate the campaign, and his own cluelessness on the issue was revealed, one might wonder why any reporter would start researching a story by saying, "I've got to hear what John McCain has to say about this!" Yet that seems to be just what is happening.

So we now have to be treated to yet more self-righteous fulmination from McCain on the evils of earmarks. In the campaign, McCain was outraged about $3 million the government spent to do a study of bear DNA. Now he's livid that the new spending bill includes $1 million to control Mormon crickets. "Is that the species of cricket or a game played by the brits?" tweeted McCain -- haw haw! (Note to the folks who run Twitter: When John McCain is using your service, it is officially over. Sell it now while you have the chance.)

But as Jonathan Chait of The New Republic noted, "McCain's method of identifying waste … is a disgrace. His technique is to focus on programs that mention animals or food, or anything that sounds silly. He's clearly not interested in learning whether any of the programs he targets have merit."

Fortunately for McCain, neither are most reporters. The press treats "earmarks" as something inherently undeserving, yet more evidence of the corruption that infects Capitol Hill. But an earmark is just the manner in which a program gets federal funding. Just as there are absurdly wasteful programs that go through the standard budgeting process, there are earmarks that are excellent ways to spend taxpayer money. The problem with McCain, as Chait notes, is that he just doesn't seem to care whether an earmarked project is worthy or unworthy. Those Mormon crickets, by the way? When they swarm, they can devastate farms -- they're so ravenous they will actually eat each other if there is not enough plant matter in front of them.

OK, so maybe protecting farmland is a reasonable use of a million dollars in government money. But those earmarks are a huge drain on the federal budget, right? Not really. In the 2008 budget, for instance, the Office of Management and Budget counted11,737 earmarks worth $16.9 billion. In the 2009 omnibus spending bill now being debated, Taxpayers for Common Sense found 8,570 earmarks, worth a total of $7.7 billion. Seems like a lot of money, until you consider how these totals compare to the size of the entire federal budget. The $16.9 billion in 2008 earmarks made up about six-tenths of 1 percent of the budget; depending on where the final numbers end up, this year's total will probably be much less. Moreover, as Mark Schmitt pointed out on Monday, most earmarks don’t spend new money, they merely direct federal agencies exactly where to spend money that has already been appropriated. (If you're interested in reading more, Factcheck.org did a fairly comprehensive debunking of the earmark myth during the campaign.)

So every last earmark -- regardless of merit -- could be eliminated tomorrow, and the effect on the government's finances would be virtually nil. Anyone who's serious about cutting the deficit is probably putting his or her efforts elsewhere.

Given all the attention McCain pays to the tiniest programs, and ones that are not actually wasteful but just sound silly until you actually learn what they're about, it's hard to argue that "serious" would be the best word to describe his views on the budget. In fact, McCain's battle against earmarks is a perfect microcosm of his larger modus operandi. It allows him to pose as the lone principled man in a Congress full of charlatans and thieves. It gives him endless anecdotes for his preferred style of oratory, moral-outrage-with-jokes. And it's as substantively empty as could be. In short, it's all you need to know about John McCain.

McCain's entire career has been a tree falling in the media forest -- if the microphones hadn't been there to capture it, it wouldn't have made a sound. Early on, McCain decided that his route to success did not lay in working his way up the Senate leadership ladder or building up a hefty legislative resumé. In a career of nearly three decades, he has one important piece of legislation to his name -- the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001, also known as McCain-Feingold -- which everyone acknowledges has completely failed in the objective it was supposed to accomplish (diminishing the influence of money in politics). Instead, McCain chose to cultivate journalists, constructing a media image to put himself in a position to reach the heights of power. It worked splendidly, eventually getting him to within a few percentage points of winning the presidency.

None of us can understand just how painful that kind of loss must be. And given the contempt McCain obviously felt for Obama during the campaign (recall him referring to Obama dismissively as "that one" during one of their debates), it must be particularly painful watching the young, handsome, debonair man who defeated him enjoying enormous approval ratings even as the country suffers. When McCain asked a question about cost overruns on a new fleet of presidential helicopters at Obama's fiscal responsibility summit, one couldn't help but think he was jealous that he wouldn't be getting to ride around in one, whether new or old.

For his part, Obama may have been reminded of town meetings back when he was a state senator. Inevitably at these events, the neighborhood crank stands up and starts yammering on about some pet issue or other while everyone else rolls their eyes and waits for him to sit down already, so the real work can begin.

Too many reporters don't seem realize that McCain is that neighborhood crank. The issues for which he mounts his high horse are virtually meaningless. He didn't enjoy all that much influence among his colleagues before he became the 2008 Republican nominee, and he certainly doesn't now. He doesn't command legions of supporters who can be activated to influence the political process. In short, his time has passed. So why is the press still so eager to hear what John McCain has to say?

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