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McCain in A Glass House

By George F. Will
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Certain kinds of conservatives, distrusting Richard Nixon's ideological elasticity, rejected him -- until 1973. Although it had become clear that his administration was a crime wave, they embraced him because the media were his tormentors. Today such conservatives, whose political compasses are controlled, albeit negatively, by the New York Times, have embraced John McCain. He, although no stickler about social niceties (see below), should thank the Times, for two reasons.

First, the Times muddied, with unsubstantiated sexual innuendo about a female lobbyist, a story about McCain's flights on jets owned by corporations with business before the Senate Commerce Committee, and his meeting with a broadcaster (McCain at first denied it happened; the broadcaster insists it did, and McCain now agrees) who sought and received McCain's help in pressuring the Federal Communications Commission. Perhaps McCain did nothing corrupt, but he promiscuously accuses others of corruption, or the "appearance" thereof. And he insists that the appearance of corruption justifies laws criminalizing political behavior -- e.g., broadcasting an electioneering communication that "refers to" a federal candidate during the McCain-Feingold blackout period close to an election.

McCain should thank the Times also because its semi-steamy story distracted attention from an unsavory story about McCain's dexterity in gaming the system for taxpayer financing of campaigns. Last summer, when his mismanagement of his campaign left it destitute, he applied for public funding, which entails spending limits. He seemed to promise to use tax dollars as partial collateral for a bank loan.

There are two ways for a candidate to get on Ohio's primary ballot -- comply with complex, expensive rules for gathering signatures or simply be certified to receive taxpayer funding. McCain's major Republican rivals did the former. He did the latter.

Democrats, whose attachment to campaign reforms is as episodic as McCain's, argue that having made such uses of promised matching funds, McCain is committed to taking them and abiding by spending limits -- which would virtually silence his campaign until the September convention. This would be condign punishment for his argument that restricting spending does not restrict speech. But Bradley Smith offers him some support.

When Smith chaired the Federal Election Commission, he voiced skepticism about the wisdom and constitutionality of aspects of McCain-Feingold's campaign regulations. McCain responded characteristically, impugning Smith's character. When, at a 2004 Senate hearing, Smith nevertheless extended his hand to McCain, McCain refused to shake it.

Smith, behaving honorably toward someone who does not reciprocate civilities, today says McCain has an arguable case that, not having cashed any public checks, he should be released from his commitment and the spending ceiling. The FEC must decide, but it cannot act because it lacks a quorum.

Normally it has six members, three from each party. Three members -- two Democrats and one Republican -- were recess appointments whose terms have expired. Senate Republicans are prepared to confirm all three -- plus the confirmation of David Mason for a new term as chairman -- to six-year terms, but Barack Obama and three other Democrats are blocking confirmation of the Republican, Hans von Spakovsky.

Von Spakovsky is as skeptical as Smith is about the entanglement of politics in regulations for which McCain is primarily responsible. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, refusing to surrender the settled principle that each party chooses its FEC members, insists that all four be voted on as a package.

McCain, although rarely reticent about matters concerning campaign regulations, has said nothing in defense of von Spakovsky, the campaign against whom has been led by the Campaign Legal Center, whose president is Trevor Potter, general counsel of the McCain campaign.

In 2001, McCain, a situational ethicist regarding "big money" in politics, founded the Reform Institute to lobby for his agenda of campaign restrictions. It accepted large contributions, some of six figures, from corporations with business before the Commerce Committee (e.g., Echosphere, DISH Network, Cablevision Systems Corp., a charity funded by the head of Univision). The Reform Institute's leadership included Potter and two others who are senior advisers in McCain's campaign, Rick Davis and Carla Eudy.

Although his campaign is run by lobbyists; and although his dealings with lobbyists have generated what he, when judging the behavior of others, calls corrupt appearances; and although he has profited from his manipulation of the taxpayer-funding system that is celebrated by reformers -- still, he probably is innocent of insincerity. Such is his towering moral vanity, he seems sincerely to consider it theoretically impossible for him to commit the offenses of appearances that he incessantly ascribes to others.

Such certitude is, however, not merely an unattractive trait. It is disturbing righteousness in someone grasping for presidential powers.

georgewill@washpost.com

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