The Washington Times

John McCain’s momentum in his quest to derail front-runner George W. Bush’s bid for the GOP presidential nomination dissipated substantially over the past week. His problem was the charges that his stance on campaign finance reform was hypocritical in the light of his own actions, namely, writing letters urging a federal agency to act on a matter involving a contributor.

The charge is a bum rap, as everyone in Washington knows and as many from both parties have said in Mr. McCain’s defense. It is, in fact, the job of senators and representatives to write agency heads. The agency in question, the Federal Communications Commission, falls within the jurisdiction of the Senate panel Mr. McCain himself chairs, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

And the fact is that people with matters subject to review by the federal government frequently make campaign contributions to the senators and representatives with oversight – the same elected officials who will also be responsible for legislation potentially affecting contributors’ business. And in fact, Sen. McCain has written hundreds of letters to the FCC on behalf of people, 15 of whom, true, proved to be contributors. But that fact alone indicates that a contribution is hardly the price of action.

The reason Mr. McCain got burned is that he is a tireless supporter of campaign finance reform. Doesn’t this look like just the sort of behavior Mr. McCain condemns? He even went so far as to cancel a fund-raiser scheduled to be thrown for him by the man on whose behalf he had written.

The answer here is that yes, this does look like the sort of behavior Mr. McCain condemns. Rather than using his own words to indict and convict him, however – the standard exercise in gotcha! that played out here – perhaps we should take his own blamelessness in this episode as occasion to reconsider the fairness of his charge that the current system is corrupt.

I have no particular brief for or against a ban on soft money, Mr. McCain’s major focus of reform (which would have done nothing in this case, since these were hard dollar contributions to his campaign). But I do object to the idea that our politicians are, in general, crooks on the take whose votes are for sale.

As Sen. Orrin Hatch has argued well in the GOP presidential debates, the charge that the system is corrupt inevitably raises the question of who, in particular, is corrupt. Whose vote has been for sale?

Proponents of reform won’t name names, and rightly not. They would prefer a general indictment of the system.

Now, in fact, the system is quite awful. But it is very difficult to imagine a system that isn’t awful in one way or another. There are huge stakes in legislation before Congress and in outcomes at federal regulatory agencies. People and companies will inevitably spend money to get their point across, one way or another.

What will our representatives do in response? What would they do differently in the absence of soft-money contributions?

Not enough to justify the charge that the system is corrupt, I bet. Senators and representatives vote as they do and take the oversight actions they do for a host of reasons. These include constituent interests, party loyalty and partisan interests, conviction, philosophy, coalition-building, horse-trading, even a sense of duty. Does a campaign contribution or the absence of it make any difference? Of course. Does it make the difference? That’s a more complicated question. In the absence of evidence of bribery – which is what we are talking about if the contributions make the difference – the case for corruption is rather overblown.

It has been observed – usually by people on the center and left of the political spectrum, and for that matter, usually by people who are also proponents of campaign finance reform – that conservatives went too far in their effort to paint government as the enemy of the people. Interesting charge. I think it has a precise equivalent on the left side of the political spectrum. The extreme language in which the case for campaign finance reform gets made, namely, that it is necessary because of our corrupt system, likewise paints government as the enemy of the people. John McCain, an honorable man, just learned that this bit of excess, too, can come back and bite you.