Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cage Match: Hanging Out in the Lobby

E.J. Dionne and David Brooks square off on John McCain’s lobbying connections.


It seems odd, but for John McCain it was a blessing to have the chance to bury questions about his dealings with lobbyists beneath an alleged sex scandal. The prurient part of the story was easy to deny, and voters are sick of sex scandals.

But even if the sex goes away, the underlying questions raised last week in the story for which the New York Times took such grief are unlikely to disappear. The McCain campaign’s sweeping denials may have been a bit too sweeping, and sex, in the end, is not what the story was really about.


In denouncing the Times story, McCain’s campaign denied that he had met with Lowell “Bud” Paxson, president of the firm. But Paxson later told The Post that he had met with McCain. More telling, Newsweek reported this weekend that McCain himself acknowledged in a 2002 deposition that he had met with Paxson.

As Newsweek wrote, “With his typically blunt, almost cheery way of admitting the sinfulness of man, including his own weaknesses, he acknowledged in the deposition that his relationship with Paxson . . . would ‘absolutely’ look corrupt to the ordinary voter.”

And on Friday, The Post reported that while McCain may relish attacking lobbyists, many top officials of his campaign — including Rick Davis, his campaign manager, and Charlie Black, his chief political adviser — are themselves well-known lobbyists with long client lists.

Why does this matter? Many of us have praised McCain over the years for his reform work and his criticism of special-interest politics. His reformer image is one reason he’s so close to securing the Republican presidential nomination. It’s thus perfectly reasonable for journalists to explore how McCain’s strong words about lobbyists square with how he’s actually dealt with them.


Over the course of his career, McCain has tried to do the impossible. He has challenged the winds of the money gale. He has sometimes failed and fallen short. And there have always been critics who cherry-pick his compromises, ignore his larger efforts and accuse him of being a hypocrite.

This is, of course, the gospel of the mediocre man: to ridicule somebody who tries something difficult on the grounds that the effort was not a total success. But any decent person who looks at the McCain record sees that while he has certainly faltered at times, he has also battled concentrated power more doggedly than any other legislator. If this is the record of a candidate with lobbyists on his campaign bus, then every candidate should have lobbyists on the bus.

And here’s the larger point: We’re going to have two extraordinary nominees for president this year. This could be one of the great general election campaigns in American history. The only thing that could ruin it is if the candidates become demagogues and hurl accusations at each other that are an insult to reality and common sense.

E.J. Dionne makes sense. David Brooks makes excuses.