The problems of being a maverick

Speaking of McCain and lobbyists … oh, wait.


As chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, John McCain began hearings that helped bring down Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist who was the central figure in a political scandal that landed Mr. Abramoff in jail.

Steve Benson, Arizona Republic, February 22, 2008 Now, as Mr. McCain releases the names of hundreds of “bundlers” — his top money collectors — one person who popped up is Juan Carlos Benitez, a lawyer and lobbyist whom Mr. Abramoff had championed for a Bush administration post.

Leslie Wayne, writing for The Caucus, reports that the House Committee on Government Reform issued a 2006 report that includes Mr. Benitez’s name. Jack Abramoff apparently wanted him appointed special counsel for immigration-related employment issues, which position—given to Benitez in 2001—allowed him to conduct investigations into allegations of unfair labor practices, including issues important to the scandalized lobbyist’s clients.

It is important to note that regardless of how well or poorly Benitez did his job, there do not seem to be any specific or actionable allegations of wrongdoing on his part. McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers reinforced the point. “Jack Abramoff was just one of several people that recommended Mr. Benitez to the Justice Department,” he said. “The campaign is not aware of any hint of an allegation against Mr. Benitez.”

David Horsey, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 22, 2008Lobbyists, contrary to popular belief, are, in fact, individuals. While the Abramoff stain certainly tarnishes Mr. Benitez to a certain extent, any assessment of his tenure at the Justice Department is its own question, and also a political one. That Mr. Abramoff behaved corruptly does not in any way indict Mr. Benitez.

Nonetheless, Mr. Benitez’s service to the John McCain’s campaign presents certain problems for his presidential bid. While the question of politicians and lobbyists has, in our day, an obvious answer—itself a question: What politician isn’t tied to lobbyists?—the so-called “maverick” senator from Arizona has long presented himself as an opponent of lobbyists and their influence in Washington, D.C. This myth, at least in its 2008 cycle, began unraveling a few months back when questions arose about McCain’s association to well-known lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Rumors swirled about a possible extramarital affair, but what can be substantiated is at least equally scandalous and seemingly more relevant. McCain’s campaign accepted over $100,000 in donations from Iseman’s firm and clients, the senator asserted his influence in issues concerning those clients, and also received other favors including the use one firm’s private jet to travel to a Florida campaign event.

And as the Washington Post reported in February, the anti-lobbyist candidate found high-profile influence peddlers all over his campaign:

For years, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has railed against lobbyists and the influence of “special interests” in Washington, touting on his campaign Web site his fight against “the ‘revolving door’ by which lawmakers and other influential officials leave their posts and become lobbyists for the special interests they have aided.”

But when McCain huddled with his closest advisers at his rustic Arizona cabin last weekend to map out his presidential campaign, virtually every one was part of the Washington lobbying culture he has long decried. His campaign manager, Rick Davis, co-founded a lobbying firm whose clients have included Verizon and SBC Telecommunications. His chief political adviser, Charles R. Black Jr., is chairman of one of Washington’s lobbying powerhouses, BKSH and Associates, which has represented AT&T, Alcoa, JPMorgan and U.S. Airways.

Senior advisers Steve Schmidt and Mark McKinnon work for firms that have lobbied for Land O’ Lakes, UST Public Affairs, Dell and Fannie Mae.

The mere presence of lobbyists in a politician’s campaign is hardly news. Nor should the idea of a politician’s behavior conflicting with expressed principles sound unique. But for McCain, who invested much in his stance against lobby influence, the question strikes at the heart of his integrity. While McCain has not yet been called to account for the disparity between principle and behavior in any manner resembling the inquisitions against his opponent, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, for everything from his ethnicity and religion to what his pastor said, flag pins, patriotism, and even his wife, the issue has not yet escaped the court of public opinion. Obama and fellow Democrats would be foolish to leave this one untouched; considering the behavior of Congressional Democrats, however, we might wonder if foolishness is in style among would-be liberals.

The Benitez issue can cause McCain all manner of inconvenience, at least. Not only is it yet another blow against his anti-lobbyist posture, but it ties him even more tightly to the dark side of both the Republican Party and politics in general. Juan Carlos Benitez served in the Bush administration, from which McCain must distance himself if he intends to overcome widespread doubt among voters that he would be anything other than the new boss, same as the old boss. And Mr. Benitez is also a favorite of Jack Abramoff, who is currently serving time in a Maryland federal prison for a public corruption scandal that has landed several others behind bars, as well. Abramoff himself advised the incoming Bush administration during the 2000-2001 transition. His association with the president reaches back at least to 1997 when, according to the Associated Press,

In that year, Abramoff charged the Marianas for getting then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to write a letter expressing support for the Pacific territory’s school choice proposal, his billing records show.

“I hope you will keep my office informed on the progress of this initiative,” Bush wrote in a July 18, 1997, letter praising the islands’ school plan and copying in an Abramoff deputy.

And in courting the Marianas to become clients of his firm, Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff pitched in 2001,

Our standing with the new administration promises to be solid as several friends of the CNMI (islands) will soon be taking high-ranking positions in the Administration, including within the Interior Department.

John McCain finds himself in an unenviable position. Having set rolling the snowball effect that would eventually land Abramoff behind bars, the anti-lobbyist candidate has among his top money men an anointed favorite of the man at the center of the most visible disgrace of American political lobbying. In Juan Carlos Benitez, the Republican candidate must also contend with yet another tie to the Bush administration, from which he so desperately needs to separate himself. McCain’s best hope is that the issue will remain nothing more than passing words in a seemingly endless stream of campaign news most obviously styled to allow him to ride the bus while demanding that his opponent walk hot coals.

With a month and a half to go before the Republican National Convention crowns McCain the official GOP nominee, he might find comfort that the issue of his ties to lobbyists has been treated so lightly in the public arena. But there looms the prospect of the two months between the convention and Election Day. Will the news media and public discourse continue to disdain issues of credibility and policy direction in favor of weightier notions like flag pins and scurrilous rumors? As is so often the case, ignorance and apathy will favor the conservative outlook. But in a year when voters are allegedly clamoring for change, one wonders when the debate will finally swing around to focus on what that means and how best to pursue such an outcome. McCain can only hope it never does, lest he be called to answer for his betrayal of principle and strong ties to the Bush heritage.

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