Obama, McCain Forged Fleeting Alliance

Sens. John McCain, left, and Russell Feingold confer as Sen. Barack Obama sits nearby during a rules committee meeting Feb. 6, 2006, the day McCain and Obama exchanged letters.
Sens. John McCain, left, and Russell Feingold confer as Sen. Barack Obama sits nearby during a rules committee meeting Feb. 6, 2006, the day McCain and Obama exchanged letters. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008

A year into his tenure on Capitol Hill, Barack Obama (D-Ill.) approached John McCain on the Senate floor to propose the two work together on a lobbying and ethics reform bill. The four-term Arizona Republican, 25 years Obama's senior, quickly saw a willing apprentice to help shake up the way business was done on Capitol Hill.

"I like him; he's probably got a great future. We can do some work together," McCain confided to his top staffer.

Instead, what began as a promising collaboration between two men bent on burnishing their reformist credentials collapsed after barely a week. The McCain-Obama relationship came undone amid charges and countercharges, all aired publicly two years ago in an exchange of stark and angry letters. Obama questioned whether McCain sided with GOP leaders rather than searching for a bipartisan solution; McCain accused Obama of "typical rhetorical gloss" and "self interested partisan posturing" by a newcomer seeking to ingratiate himself with party leaders.

"Please be assured I won't make the same mistake again," McCain wrote Obama on Feb. 6, 2006.

It was the first, and only, time the two ever tried extensively working together.

More than two years later, with McCain and Obama potentially poised to go head to head in a presidential campaign with stakes far greater than regulating who picks up steakhouse tabs, the reform fight has emerged as a looking-glass moment of what a fall campaign could resemble.

McCain's backers view it as emblematic of Obama's ability to talk grand ideas and aspirations, but also of his ultimate failure to produce substantive results. Obama's supporters contend that the moment was vintage Obama, with the newcomer defusing the feud with a cool demeanor that allowed him to claim the high ground while rolling up his sleeves to eventually help pass a broader ethics overhaul bill in August 2007.

"There was a little bit of grandstanding there [by Obama] that made it difficult to get a bipartisan effort," said former senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a McCain backer deeply involved in the failed push for ethics and lobbying reform in 2006. "This idea that, as president, he's going to be able to reach across the aisle -- there's very thin gruel that would indicate that."

"Senator Obama has every right to tout his role in that legislation," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a supporter of the senator from Illinois who has often worked with McCain on reform issues. "He wasn't showboating. He was trying to get things done."

Officially, both presidential campaigns downplay the significance of the encounter, saying that the two enjoy a cordial relationship and attributing the fact that they have not since found occasion to work together to time constraints and assignments on different committees. But their first tentative campaign jousting this year suggests that both men walked away from that initial encounter with doubts about the other's sincerity, in contrast with the working relationship built up over this decade between McCain and Obama's remaining Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

On the stump Obama mocks McCain's maverick image, saying McCain "fell in line" with Republican orthodoxy on tax cuts after initially opposing the $1.3 trillion tax-cut plan in 2001. He tweaks McCain for surrounding himself with lobbyists as advisers, arguing that presidential ambition has trumped his reformer convictions.

"Somewhere along the line, the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels," Obama said in January during a Democratic debate.

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