Candidates' flaws suddenly plain to see

By Philip Gailey, Editor of Editorials
Published February 24, 2008

We had the audacity to hope Barack Obama, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, was serious about accepting public financing for his general election campaign. And as for John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, we told ourselves that he was different from most Washington politicians, more saint than sanctimonious on matters of ethics and campaign finance. Obama is promising a break with politics as usual; McCain with business as usual in Washington.

Now, even before the primary season is over, there are reasons to wonder if these two presidential candidates can live up to the expectations they and their boosters in the news media have created. Obama is in retreat from his pledge to accept public financing in the fall campaign, and McCain continues to rail against lobbyists and special interests even as he relies on them for political money and advice. Many of their supporters have to be disappointed, if not disillusioned. Maybe they led us on. Or maybe some of us allowed our imaginations to override healthy skepticism to create Obama, the political phenomenon and agent of change, and McCain, the straight-talking scourge of special interests.

So now we are beginning to see them for what they are, exceptional but flawed political figures who are operating brilliantly in a political system they often denounce and promise to change. They are bound to disappoint. In fact, they already have.

Three months ago Obama pledged to the Midwest Democracy Network that if he were to become the Democratic nominee he would forgo private fundraising and participate in the public financing system, as long as the Republican nominee agreed to do the same. Now that McCain has agreed to accept public dollars, Obama is trying to wriggle out of his promise.

His campaign insists that Obama never really made a pledge. Instead, public financing was only an "option" that "remains on the table." And oh yes, Obama keeps adding pre-conditions for accepting public money.

He wrote in USA Today last week: "The candidates will have to commit to discouraging cheating by their supporters; to refusing fundraising help from outside groups; to limiting their own parties to legal forms of involvement. And the agreement may have to address the amounts that Senator McCain, the presumptive nominee of his party, will spend for the general election while the Democratic primary contest continues."

So what is really going on? Obama has discovered that he has a Midas touch for fundraising. With more than 1-million individual contributors, a first for a presidential contender, his campaign is setting fundraising records almost daily. The Obama campaign is not eager to give up its huge fundraising advantage and limit itself to the $85-million in public money each party's nominee would get. This is no time for a level playing field, Obama is being advised.

Can Obama reject special-interest money and still win the White House in November?

Yes he can.

But will he?

Meanwhile, John McCain was in the news last week for his cozy relationship with a female lobbyist nine years ago. The Arizona senator blasted the New York Times for insinuating that he had an improper relationship with lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. Frankly, I thought the story, based mostly on the suspicions of anonymous sources, was more embarrassing to the New York Times than to McCain.

McCain denied his relationship with Iseman was inappropriate, calling her a friend. He also insisted that he has never done anything to "betray the public trust" or extend special favors to lobbyists. Maybe he didn't do any favors for Iseman's main client, Paxton Communications, but she and Paxon certainly did some for him. Paxon executives and lobbyists donated $20,000 to his 2000 presidential campaign and provided the company jet to McCain for campaign travel on four occasions (flying on corporate jets has since been banned).

On his campaign Web site, McCain promises to jam "the revolving door by which lawmakers and other influential officials leave their posts and become lobbyists for the special interests they have aided."

According to the Washington Post, "lobbyists are essentially running his presidential campaign - most of them are volunteers." The story reported that Public Citizen, a campaign fundraising watchdog, found that McCain "has more bundlers - people who gather checks from networks of friends and associates - from the lobbying community than any other presidential candidate from either party."

By Public Citizen's count, McCain has at least 59 federal lobbyists raising money for his campaign.

McCain said that the lobbyists on his campaign team are all "honorable people" who would never ask him for something for their clients. You see, he explained, it is the system that is corrupt, not the individual lobbyists.

None of this is to suggest that McCain and Obama are in the corrupt grip of special interests. But it does show that when it comes to dealing with lobbyists and raising campaign money, they are not all that different from other politicians who talk the talk but don't walk the walk. Lobbyists are part of the political system and neither McCain nor Obama is going to change that as president.