We’ve all known it for a while, but I think that after last night it is probably unofficially official: Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.
I think its going to be an absolutely incredible next few months. From my perspective, it is hard not to view these two candidates as the most inspiring since Reagan. Not that everyone found Reagan inspiring, but he’s probably the last candidate who really did provide any inspiration to anybody. It’ll be great to see how it all plays out.
I get the impression that we are also likely in for an attempt at a fairly civil campaign. Maybe the national and state parties will pursue the usual tactics, but I’ve got a feeling that the two candidates themselves will try and stay above the fray.
That being said, I wanted to take a moment to examine the only instance during their overlapping time in the Senate in which John McCain and Barack Obama have worked together: ethics reform. This was prior to the 2006 mid-term elections.
Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist had recently pleaded guilty to bribing members of Congress. A committee headed by McCain had performed much of the investigative work. With need for ethics and lobbying reform necessary, Senate Republicans turned to McCain and the Democrats turned a fresh faced Obama, who had a record of ethics reform in the Illinois legislature.
Apparently, Obama approached McCain on the Senate floor to propose working on a bi-partisan lobbying and ethics reform bill. McCain invited Obama to attend a February 2006 bipartisan meeting of senators. A day after the meeting however, the wheels began to come off of Obama’s bi-partisan bus.
A day after the meeting, Obama wrote the following letter to McCain, simultaneously releasing it to the media:
February 2, 2006
Thank you for inviting me to participate in the meeting yesterday to discuss lobbying and ethics reform proposals currently before the Senate. I appreciate your willingness to reach out to me and several other Senate Democrats to discuss what should be done to restore public confidence in the way that Congress conducts its business. The discussion clearly underscored the difficult challenge facing Congress.
You and many in the Democratic Caucus have played a major role in reform efforts in the Senate. In fact, the Indian Affairs Committee hearings you led were instrumental in promoting public awareness of the culture of corruption that has permeated the nation’s capital.
As you know, Senator Harry Reid and others in the Democratic Caucus have taken an important step by introducing S. 2180, the Honest Leadership Act, which imposes many of the same disclosure requirements for lobbyists that you have proposed, while also strengthening enforcement, eliminating “pay to play” schemes, and imposing more restrictive rules on meals, gifts, and travel that Members and their staff can receive from special interests that advocate before Congress. This bill, which now has the support of 40 members of the Democratic Caucus, represents a significant step in addressing many of the worst aspects of corruption that have come to light as a result of the Justice Department investigation of Jack Abramoff.
I know you have expressed an interest in creating a task force to further study and discuss these matters, but I and others in the Democratic Caucus believe the more effective and timely course is to allow the committees of jurisdiction to roll up their sleeves and get to work on writing ethics and lobbying reform legislation that a majority of the Senate can support. Committee consideration of these matters through the normal course will ensure that these issues are discussed in a public forum and that those within Congress, as well as those on the outside, can express their views, ensuring a thorough review of this matter.
Given the state of affairs in Washington, we have a historic opportunity to make fundamental changes in the way our government operates so that the actions we take as public officials are responsive and transparent to the American people. Thank you again for your interest in this important matter.
McCain believed that Obama backed off of the bi-partisan approach because it would damage the Democrats attempts, led by Senator Harry Reid, to make GOP corruption a central issue in the 2006 midterm elections. McCain responded by sending Obama the following letter:
February 6, 2006
Dear Senator Obama:
I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere. When you approached me and insisted that despite your leadership’s preference to use the issue to gain a political advantage in the 2006 elections, you were personally committed to achieving a result that would reflect credit on the entire Senate and offer the country a better example of political leadership, I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions with your letter to me dated February 2, 2006, which explained your decision to withdraw from our bipartisan discussions. I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. Again, sorry for the confusion, but please be assured I won’t make the same mistake again.
As you know, the Majority Leader has asked Chairman Collins to hold hearings and mark up a bill for floor consideration in early March. I fully support such timely action and I am confident that, together with Senator Lieberman, the Committee on Governmental Affairs will report out a meaningful, bipartisan bill.
You commented in your letter about my “interest in creating a task force to further study” this issue, as if to suggest I support delaying the consideration of much-needed reforms rather than allowing the committees of jurisdiction to hold hearings on the matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The timely findings of a bipartisan working group could be very helpful to the committee in formulating legislation that will be reported to the full Senate. Since you are new to the Senate, you may not be aware of the fact that I have always supported fully the regular committee and legislative process in the Senate, and routinely urge Committee Chairmen to hold hearings on important issues. In fact, I urged Senator Collins to schedule a hearing upon the Senate’s return in January.
Furthermore, I have consistently maintained that any lobbying reform proposal be bipartisan. The bill Senators Joe Lieberman and Bill Nelson and I have introduced is evidence of that commitment as is my insistence that members of both parties be included in meetings to develop the legislation that will ultimately be considered on the Senate floor. As I explained in a recent letter to Senator Reid, and have publicly said many times, the American people do not see this as just a Republican problem or just a Democratic problem. They see it as yet another run-of-the-mill Washington scandal, and they expect it will generate just another round of partisan gamesmanship and posturing. Senator Lieberman and I, and many other members of this body, hope to exceed the public’s low expectations. We view this as an opportunity to bring transparency and accountability to the Congress, and, most importantly, to show the public that both parties will work together to address our failings.
As I noted, I initially believed you shared that goal. But I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party’s effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman Senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness. Again, I have been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn’t always a priority for every one of us. Good luck to you, Senator.
Obama wrote back:
During my short time in the U.S. Senate, one of the aspects about this institution that I have come to value most is the collegiality and the willingness to put aside partisan differences to work on issues that help the American people. It was in this spirit that I approached you to work on ethics reform, and it was in this spirit that I agreed to attend your bipartisan meeting last week. I appreciated then – and still do appreciate – your willingness to reach out to me and several other Democrats.
For this reason, I am puzzled by your response to my recent letter. Last Wednesday morning, you called to invite me to your meeting that afternoon. I changed my schedule so I could attend the meeting. Afterwards, you thanked me several times for attending the meeting, and we left pledging to work together.
As you will recall, I told everyone present at the meeting that my caucus insisted that the consideration of any ethics reform proposal go through the regular committee process. You didn’t indicate any opposition to this position at the time, and I wrote the letter to reiterate this point, as well as the fact that I thought S. 2180 should be the basis for a bipartisan solution.
I confess that I have no idea what has prompted your response. But let me assure you that I am not interested in typical partisan rhetoric or posturing. The fact that you have now questioned my sincerity and my desire to put aside politics for the public interest is regrettable but does not in any way diminish my deep respect for you nor my willingness to find a bipartisan solution to this problem.
Eventually, the Senate pased, on a 90 to 8 vote, a softened reform package. Both Obama and McCain were part of the eight that were opposed. The bill eventually died. The Democrats took Congress in the mid-term elections. The Senate would eventually approve, by a 96 to 2 vote, a bill that included almost every provision Obama and McCain had pushed for a year earlier.
“Last year, I and Senator Feingold and Senator McCain voted against it because we thought we could do better. So in January, I came back with Senator Feingold and we set a high bar for reform. And I’m pleased to report that the bill before us today comes very close to what we proposed.”
McCain voted against the final bill because it didn’t address, in his view, enough about earmarked spending.
On the one hand I understand Obama’s retreat from a bi-partisan approach. As a freshman Senator, if the party leadership says you need to do a certain thing, you’re most often going to follow that advice. Especially if you’re contemplating an eventual Presidential bid.
On the other hand, Obama’s Presidential campaign is based upon the idea that he will be able to reach across the aisle to the Republicans to find a better way forward. That certainly seemed to be missing here.