The Downside of Doing the Right Thing

  • Share
  • Read Later

John McCain can be applauded for establishing a clear, public policy defining the conflict of interest rules for lobbyists and vendors who work in his campaign, even if it comes pretty late in the cycle. His campaign is right to say that the policy is, in some ways, a stricter one than what Obama has announced. In some ways, it is also weaker. Here is a quick crib sheet on how I score out the two campaigns’ current policies and practices:

Both McCain and Obama Say
-Current registered lobbyists shall/do not work for the campaign.
-Current registered lobbyists can be unpaid volunteers or advisers to help the campaigns.
-Former registered lobbyists can work for the campaigns.
-Anyone who is hired into a McCain or Obama administration will be barred from lobbying the administration after they leave office.

Obama Says
-Current federal lobbyists cannot give or raise money for the campaign.
-Anyone who works for the Obama administration will not be able to work on regulations or contracts directly related to a former employer for two years.

McCain Says
-Part-time campaign volunteers must disclose their lobbying work and cannot give policy advice on the issue “subjects” they lobby about.
-Part-time volunteers are also prohibited from lobbying the McCain campaign or his senate office.
-No person with a campaign title or position may participate with a presidential independent expenditure group, like a 527 group.
-No campaign vendor may also do work with those same groups without a “preapproved firewall,” which separates the McCain campaign work and the other work.

The good news is that, unlike past presidential elections, both of these candidates are showing that they take the issue on improper influence seriously. The bad news for McCain is that his policy is so specific that it has energized opposition research shops (and investigative reporters who do their own research) to seek out staffers or vendors who might not fit (or didn’t fit in the past) the letter or spirit of the new rules. The McCain conflict policy also amounts to a shift in his campaign’s position, which has him on the defensive. Take this robotic exchange, captured by Fox News, at a press conference in Savannah yesterday, posted after the jump:

Question: What was the impetus for the new lobbying policy?

McCain: “We have enacted the most comprehensive and most transparent policy concerning lobbyist activities and I challenge Senator Obama to adopt a similar policy.”

Question: Is this an inside-the-beltway issue? Do the American people care?

McCain: “It’s not so much that as we wanted to make sure there was an effective and comprehensive and transparent policy towards lobbyist, the most comprehensive and transparent of any presidential campaign in history, and I challenge Senator Obama to adopt the same policy.”

Question: Why did this policy take so long and are you confident we will see no more departures from your campaign?

McCain: “We have enacted the most comprehensive and transparent policy of any presidential campaign in history and I challenge Senator Obama to adopt the same policy.”

The McCain campaign now says that everyone working or volunteering for the campaign is compliant with the new policy. But having worked the phones for the last few days, I can report that there is still a lot of consternation and confusion about the changes in McCainLand. Volunteers are unclear about what work they will or will not be doing in the future. (How specific will policy “subjects” be defined, for instance?) And other supporters are concerned about when the endless drip-drip of McCain and lobbyist stories will stop. Others are wondering when reporters will stop focusing on McCain’s lobbyist connections and start focusing on the current lobbyists advising Obama and the former lobbyists working in his campaign. (Tom Daschle, for example, a senior unpaid Obama adviser, also works as an unregistered “policy advisor” for the lobbying firm Alston and Bird.)

When all the smoke clears, this whole episode may be seen as Exhibit A in one of the more cynical lessons of politics. By showing a willingness to address a perceived problem in his campaign, McCain made the perception of that problem even worse in the short term.