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David Donnelly Headshot

Prebuttal: McCain's Reform Credentials Have Turned to Sand

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The John McCain who fought for campaign finance reform in the past is not the same John McCain speaking tonight. In his acceptance speech, McCain will try to recapture the past reform victories as prologue to what a President McCain would fight for, but the last two years have exposed him as a cynical, old-school politician. McCain has neither a comprehensive, bold reform agenda that will truly change Washington nor the ability to reject the control exercised by his lobbyist-run, big money-fueled candidacy.

As someone who has organized for comprehensive campaign finance reform for just as long as John McCain has, and as someone who has organized and campaigned for virtually every single public financing victory at the state level in the past twelve years, reaching this conclusion earlier this year was not easy. Sen. McCain has fought shoulder-to-shoulder with my colleagues and me for reforms in a number of states around the country. One might call it organizing. But the stakes in this election are too high, and the opportunities to truly change Washington are too great, to remain silent in the face of Sen. McCain's hollow calls for reform and his reversal on ending campaign money's grip over who runs for office and what they do if they win.

Here's what he'll claim, and what the truth really is:

• Sen. McCain will promote his role in digging into the scandals involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But McCain stopped short of calling former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed to testify, or to investigate any other elected official or politician as part of his committee's work. Reed is now raising money for McCain. Thousands of pages of evidence have yet to be released from Sen. McCain's investigation. Because McCain refused to fully investigate, the public does not know the full story of which elected officials or their staffs helped Abramoff with his scams.

• Sen. McCain will speak to the need to crack down on earmarks, and will likely criticize earmarks for communities in different states around the nation. But he will likely not reveal that he was critical of earmarks for Wasilla, Alaska, that have been delivered to Alaska under Sarah Palin's watch. Sen. McCain will not divulge that his campaign is dependent on lobbyists who line up the earmarks for cities, counties, and states.

• Sen. McCain will triumphantly boast of the money he saved taxpayers when he stopped an Air Force contract from going to Boeing. What he'll leave out is that Boeing's competitor was then given the contract, worth up to $100 billion dollars, after his intervention and after they hired seven lobbyists who have worked for Sen. McCain's election. McCain has received more in campaign donations from Airbus's executives then any other politician.

• Sen. McCain will likely rail against the lobbyists in Washington and claim he helped craft a new lobbying and ethics law. Despite some good things required under these reforms, how does preventing a lobbyist from buying McCain a $25 lunch while allowing the same lobbyist to raise $250,000 for McCain's campaign blunt the power of lobbyists?

• Speaking of campaign fundraising, Sen. McCain opted in and then out of the public financing system in the primary using a shady loan. He claims he'll run a campaign using public financing from this point on, but his fundraisers are collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in party contributions to run a parallel campaign for McCain.

• More critically, he once used to be a passionate supporter of comprehensive campaign finance reform, but has now capitulated to the lobbyists and big money factions of the Republican Party. He once authored a fix to the presidential public financing system, but now he refuses to cosponsor it or even pledge to make it a priority if he's elected.

• Sen. McCain will promote his proposal to drill for oil offshore, but he won't tell anyone that he's raised millions from oil executives in the wake of reversing himself on the issue. In fact, the money the McCain/RNC joint fundraising account raised from Hess Oil execs and one office manager was been subject to much scrutiny that my organization asked teh Justice Department to investigate, along with another well-documented case where a bundler from Florida raised money for McCain by allegedly using straw donors in California.

• Sen. McCain's success in pressing for the campaign finance law that bears his name, McCain-Feingold, is undermined by his insistence that he would appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of John Roberts and Samuel Alito - two recent appointments who have already made their mark by undermining key provisions of that law.

In this play to the right-wing base of his party, McCain is saying that he'd rather lose that law than lose this election.

In general, while he rests on his past laurels, he no longer voices any support for tackling the role that campaign money plays in shaping the policy agenda in Washington. The prospect of winning this campaign drove him into the waiting, check-writing arms of special interest contributors from the oil, coal, insurance, mortgage, finance, and lobbying industries.

Countless reporters have written variations on stories of how McCain's candidacy is dependent and beholden to special interests lobbyists and money. From the oil money gusher he hit when he reversed himself on offshore drilling, to the foreign policy positions precisely matching the lobbyists advising him, John McCains's campaign is stage-managed by more than 150 lobbyists who are raising money, drafting his policy positions, and controlling his message.

John McCain's reform credentials have turned to sand under a tide of special interest lobbyists, campaign money, and placating right-wing ideologues. Nothing he will say in one speech can rebuild what once was.