McCain irks some spenders, gains some traction

By David Nyhan, Globe Columnist, 10/17/99

here is a connection between politics and government that is often obscured in the day-to-day weather shifts, when clouds and fog sometimes make it hard to read changes in the landscape.

But that link between what happens in politics and what happens in government emerged through the mists last week. On the floor of the US Senate, some of his own Republican colleagues rounded on John McCain, the gutsy Arizona conservative who's put political corruption atop the agenda of the presidential primary contest.

The chief architect, defender, and beneficiary of the current system of anything-goes-soft-money and favors-in-exchange-for-contributions, Senator Mitch McConnell, assailed McCain and his crusade for cleaner money in the political process.

Smarting under the implication that they are part of the current system that McCain brands as corrupting, McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Senator Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, and others demanded McCain identify by name who among them he deems corruptly influenced by soft money, those unregulated sums total ing millions that pass easily from lobbyists to political committees.

''Someone must be corrupt for there to be corruption,'' barked McConnell, who chairs the committee that harvests contributions on behalf of Republican senators, who always collectively outspend their Democratic rivals.

Mitch, old pal, you are so right. But the louder you scream, the more people think you doth protesteth too much.

A month ago, McConnell attacked business leaders who've banded together to urge Congress to eliminate soft money, the corrupting cash flow that rewards big contributors with access to policy makers, leverage in the back room deal-cutting that packages legislation, and, sometimes, outright and outrageous favoritism that leaves Joe Sixpack paying more for less, whether it be cable television fees, gasoline taxes, or credit card interest rates.

This second broadside in as many months from McConnell and other beneficiaries of business-as-usual inside the Beltway tells me McCain is gaining traction with his campaign for elimination of soft money. And from New Hampshire comes confirmation of the sort politicians understand best: McCain is rising in the New Hampshire polling leading up to the first primary just 15 weeks away.

Last week, the GOP candidates in New Hampshire were pegged by a Zogby survey thus: Texas Governor George W. Bush 40 percent; Senator McCain, a solid second-and-climbing at 21; moneybags Steve Forbes 12; a fast-fading Elizabeth Dole 7; and 1996 New Hampshire winner Pat Buchanan a distant fifth with 5 percent. Bush, who heists $2 million per week from rich Republicans delirious at the prospect of having their very own presidentagain, is still the top-heavy favorite.

But McCain, the Vietnam POW who has become the crispest puncher in the GOP stable, has rocketed from way back in the pack to the point where he is now Bush's principal challenger. If the favorite stumbles, it is axiomatic in primary politicking, the No. 2 candidate is the alternative most likely to benefit.

Further evidence of the evolution of our politics comes from the involvement of the Internet in McCain's crusade. Lots of candidates are fiddling around with ways to use the interactive technology. McCain uses it two ways: to raise money from voters fed up with business as usual, and to post information in voluminous detail that interested citizens can pore over to learn how deeply the soft money system has invaded our politics.

McConnell has been the front man for Big Tobacco for years in the Senate, and is masterful at soliciting huge sums from business executives fearful of regulation, investigation, indictment, or other sorts of unwelcome government involvement.

Basically, businessmen pay protection money to the politicians who can best protect them. And in this Republican Congress, that gives the GOP the lion's share of the boodle. In previous years, Democrats had more elbow room at the trough. But the system is now so out of control that the money-grubbing resembles the wildlife clustered around a shrinking African waterhole in dry season, lions and elephants cheek-by-jowl with the antelope and hyenas, everyone jostling for nourishment.

McCain's campaign Web site,, lists a bunch of pork barrel projects shoehorned into federal spending bills by senators paying off large contributors.

Bennett, a conservative who spent a lot of lung power last year denouncing President Clinton daily on cable TV for moral turpitude, stuffed $2.2 million into the budget for sewer work for the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, an enterprise widely renowned for the influence-peddling that won it the lucrative 2002 Winter Olympics.

Demonstrating how close to the bone McCain's Web site scalpel has cut, Bennett demanded McCain specify just who gave how much to whom to sneak the money into the budget without any congressional hearings at which critics could question the outlay. McCain refused to name names in the way McConnell and Bennett insisted. But he brandished a copy of a letter he wrote a year ago to Bennett, raising the issue. Bennett never replied. ''The people of Arizona would at least like to have a hearing before their tax dollars go the State of Utah,'' McCain said archly.

On the larger issue of soft money, the feisty Arizonan said ''What this fight is all about is taking the $100,000 check out of American politics for good.''

Off the evidence, the issue is resonating in New Hampshire. As an often-tortured US Navy fighter pilot who held out with immense courage against North Vietnamese interrogators, McCain is not about to be intimidated by a bunch of suits in the Senate.

His rise in New Hampshire gives Granite State voters - Republicans and independents who can vote in either party primary - the chance to toss a match into the potentially incendiary issue of corrupt money in politics. The fuel is there. All it takes is ignition. And to the status-quo boys, McCain is the arsonist. McCain is positioning himself as the apostle of clean money jousting with the money-changers in the temple of government.

That's not a bad position to be in when New Hampshire has the reputation for rewarding mavericks who take a stand on principle. Nowhere else in the land will plain ordinary voters have as much chance to tip the scales against big money in politics as in New Hampshire.

David Nyhan is a Globe columnist.