Research support was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
In early April John McCain held a top-dollar fundraiser at Washington’s Willard Hotel, where President Ulysses S. Grant invented the term “lobbyist.” It was a fitting locale, as the election-reform group Public Campaign noted, since thirty-five of the forty-three hosts for the evening were registered lobbyists. The following week Rick Davis–on leave from his job as a lobbyist to work as McCain’s campaign manager–gave a strategy presentation to lobbyists from the oil, utility and nuclear power industries, soliciting campaign contributions.
McCain’s ties to K Street began attracting attention, and a month later two of his key operatives were forced to resign after the press revealed that they’d lobbied for the Burmese dictatorship. A top McCain fundraiser, former Congressman Tom Loeffler, also got his walking papers after lobbying McCain on behalf of Saudi Arabia. In the space of ten days, five McCain lobbyists-turned-staffers left his campaign. Those who remained included senior adviser Charlie Black–formerly one of the most high-profile Republican lobbyists in Washington, who has represented the likes of Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, mercenary contractor Blackwater and Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. One could be forgiven for wondering, Was anyone in McCain’s inner circle not a lobbyist?
Coziness between lawmakers and lobbyists is an old story in Washington, but in McCain’s case such entanglements threaten to derail his maverick mystique. After his humiliating involvement in the Keating Five corruption scandal in the late 1980s, McCain worked tirelessly to cultivate a reputation as a chastened reformer. In the following years he made campaign-finance reform–specifically banning unlimited “soft money” donations–a near crusade, working closely with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold and angering many Republicans. Embracing campaign-finance reform became a useful way for McCain to differentiate himself from his earlier incarnation and from the DeLays and Gingriches and Bushes who were corrupting the Republican Party. Yet his second run for the presidency, with its emphasis on courting conservative Republicans, highlights the fact that McCain has morphed back into a quintessential creature of Washington–just another politician who uses the issue of reform when it suits his agenda.
For McCain, there is no better example of how the image of reform has obscured the intersection of corporate donations and DC lobbyists than the Reform Institute. A nonprofit with an Orwellian name, the institute was founded by McCain and his allies a year after his failed 2000 campaign. Billed as “a non-partisan election reform organization whose Honorary Chair is Senator John McCain,” the institute wasn’t really nonpartisan, and McCain was far more than an honorary chair. “It was predicated on McCain’s political connections,” says Robert Crane of the JEHT Foundation, a social justice organization in New York and one of the Reform Institute’s past funders. “It wasn’t an independent entity.” To be sure, the institute did some good work at the state level in support of clean elections, but it always remained a John McCain protection agency.