Money and McCain

Boston Globe editorial, 1/6/2000

ll proposals for political reform must be measured first against one question: Do they restore confidence that ours is a government of the people and not of the connected?

In this year's presidential field, Senator John McCain has pressed this theme most consistently on the stump. Public cynicism and low voter turnout, the Arizona Republican has argued effectively, inevitably grow out of a system in which monied interests are seen buying access and influence.

McCain himself is not exempt. A story yesterday by the Globe's Walter V. Robinson illustrated vividly how McCain recently used his power as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, writing to the Federal Communications Commission to push for a vote on a matter affecting a big McCain contributor. The FCC did vote - and in the contributor's favor. While denying impropriety, McCain admitted that '' we're all tainted'' by the campaign finance system.

As if to illustrate McCain's remark, the nonpartison Center for Public Integrity yesterday published ''The Buying of the President 2000,'' a book that lists the large contributors to the major candidates and links monetary support to official actions the candidates have taken. Six-figure donations from employees and members of their families have gone from the energy firm Enron to Texas Governor George W. Bush, from an Internet lobbying group to Vice President Al Gore, and from several Wall Street houses to former senator Bill Bradley, among many examples.

As always, it can be argued that the contributions support policy decisions already taken rather than future actions, but the details are discouraging in McCain's case because he was receiving support from the company at the very time he wrote the FCC.

A McCain spokesman said, ''It gets down to appearances, and there's nothing beyond the appearances.'' But that's the problem. With public confidence in the balance, appearances count enormously.

Under the existing system, unfortunately, it would be folly for a presidential candidate to run without aggressive fundraising. But candidates running as reformers would do well to avoid overt actions that tarnish their position.