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The Buying of the President 2000 -
The Authoritative guide to special interests that are bankrolling the presidential contenders.

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Center Commentary

Denial and Hypocrisy
by Charles Lewis
The Center for Public Integrity

(Washington, Feb. 24) Anyone who has ever doubted that God has a sense of humor should take a look at the current Republican presidential campaign. Who would have thought a few years ago that the two leading GOP contenders for the White House would be beating their chests over campaign finance reform? 

The last Republican president, George Bush, vetoed campaign finance reform legislation passed by Congress. When Newt Gingrich became the first Republican speaker of the House in 40 years, he and his leadership team kept any serious campaign reform legislation off the floor throughout 1995, 1996 and 1997. In 1998 and 1999, members of both houses of Congress actually passed reform bills, but they could not overcome a threatened filibuster by Republicans in the Senate.

To the chagrin of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and others, their GOP colleague from Arizona, John McCain, led that unsuccessful but very public crusade. To their further consternation, McCain then decided to run for president, with political reform as the central theme of his campaign. �Until the last breath I draw, I will fight to give the government back to the American people,�  he said.

When McCain's crowds began surging a few weeks ago and he shellacked the party front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in the New Hampshire primary, exit polls revealed that McCain dominated the issue of campaign finance reform. Among New Hampshire voters most concerned with that issue, 83 percent voted for McCain and only 13 percent voted for Bush. 

'Reformer with Results'

H.L. Mencken once wrote, �The saddest life is that of a political aspirant under democracy. His failure is ignominious and his success is disgraceful.� Within days of his humiliating defeat, Governor Bush repackaged himself as a �reformer with results,� mentioning tort, education and welfare policies he had enacted in Texas. He could hardly point to campaign finance reform initiatives because, in fact, there have not been any. Indeed, Bush is the first major party front-runner for the White House since Watergate to forgo federal matching funds and state-by-state spending caps. His $70 million raised last year is two-and-a-half-times more than any presidential candidate has ever raised the year before the election.

Worse than the sudden, saturation use of the word �reform� in ads and speeches in Delaware and South Carolina, the clearly rattled Bush campaign also began characterizing McCain as a hypocrite, as a creature of the Washington, D.C. �Beltway� who has received the most campaign money from lobbyists. According to the Texas governor, �Of the major candidates, [I am] the only one who does not have a D.C. ZIP code.� That may be true, but according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bush has received the most campaign contributions from Washington, D.C., and he has received five times more campaign cash from Washington lobbyists than has McCain. Vice President Al Gore, incidentally, has received the most money from Washington influence-peddlers. The Bush campaign castigated McCain for his trips on corporate jets, but in fact Governor Bush has taken twice as many such trips.

Just four days before the important South Carolina primary, Bush began portraying himself as an earnest advocate for campaign finance reform. But his last-minute proposal to ban soft money would allow millionaires to continue to give it in unlimited sums, which Bush explained �are reforms that respect individuals.� Such deliberately misleading blather is contemptuous of both the truth and the public.

McCain Relatives Kept Stake

The irony about all of this testosterone over campaign finance reform is that John McCain himself is a most unlikely political reformer. The last surviving senator from the infamous �Keating Five� scandal a decade ago, McCain received $112,000 from Charles Keating (including his family and employees) of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan, who flew McCain and his family on his corporate jet nine times, including three times to his vacation estate in the Bahamas. McCain and four Democratic senators met with federal regulators at Keating's request. In the wake of the national scandal, McCain admitted he had made a mistake and contributed $112,000 to the U.S. Treasury.
However, it is not well known that his wife and father-in-law held onto their lucrative stake in a real estate deal Keating had cut them in on, selling their share of the Fountain Square Shopping Center just two years ago for a profit that McCain reported as between $100,000 and $1 million. 

McCain certainly is no Washington outsider, with his campaign assisted by such big-name lobbyists as former White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein and former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., and dozens of others. It has been well reported in recent weeks that McCain, as Senate Commerce Committee chairman, has sought and received hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies with business before his committee, and he has done favors for them. For example, besides Keating, his top career patrons have been employees of U S West, who have given $107,520 to McCain. Last May, he introduced the �Internet Regulatory Freedom Act,� which would boost the company's efforts to offer high-speed Internet service over long-distance phone lines. The same day McCain introduced his bill, U.S. West chairman Solomon Trujillo, a top McCain fund-raiser, crowed, �U S West will be able to provide high-speed Internet service to an additional two million households and businesses throughout our region during the first year alone.�

All Are Up to Their Necks

In this regard, McCain is no different from the other leading contenders for the White House. Frankly, all of them are up to their necks in special interests. All of them have necessarily raised millions of dollars from wealthy, powerful interests. Indeed, in the current corrupt system, any major presidential candidate advocating political reform could be hoisted on the petard of �hypocrite.� As The Buying of the President 2000 documents, all of them � Bush, McCain, Bradley and Gore � have made government decisions that have been extremely helpful to their patrons. Our elections today are increasingly expensive and exclusive, funded by a tiny elite. Some 96 percent of the American people do not contribute a dime to politicians at the federal level, and a check of $1,000 comes from one-tenth of 1 percent of the population.
In a party that has nominated presidential tickets with familiar candidates named either Bush or Dole in every election since 1976, the odds certainly do not favor John McCain. That is so especially when you consider that in every election since 1976, the candidate who has raised the most money by the end of the year preceding the election � and who has been eligible for federal matching funds � has become his party's nominee for president. In 1999, George Bush raised $70 million. John McCain took in less than a fourth of that, $16 million.

It's McCain's Candor
What differentiates McCain from the others is the extent to which he has fought for campaign finance reform, at the personal cost of alienating the leaders of his own political party. What exactly the conservative Republican could, would or should do as president about cleaning up politics is unclear. But perhaps the reason his reform message is resonating these days is that the public senses that McCain is the most candid about the influence of money in our democracy, saying, �Both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder. All of us are tainted by this system, myself included. I do not make any claims of piety.�
On this point, the other dependent candidates are in deep denial.

Charles Lewis is executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, which recently released the book The Buying of the President 2000 (Avon). Senior Associate Marianne Holt of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to the research for this commentary.

Previous Commentary:

  • Campaign Checklist: Process becomes twisted as candidates make contributions, not voters, first priority
  • Citizen Muckraking: How To Investigate and Right Wrongs in Your Community

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