Oh, how the tables turn. Yesterday Sen. John McCain was laying into Sen. Barack Obama for wobbling on the presidential public financing system and today he's fending off accusations of giving improper access and influence to a lobbyist whose clients had business before a Senate committee that McCain chaired.
The New York Times broke a story last night that they'd been working on for quite some time: did McCain have an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist, did it lead to ethically questionable behavior in his capacity as a Senator, and can he still stake a claim to Reformer credentials with this an other questionable acts in his past.
The Times claims that former aides to McCain intervened to cut ties between the Senator and Vicki Iseman, a telecommunications lobbyist.
Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.
It had been just a decade since an official favor for a friend with regulatory problems had nearly ended Mr. McCain’s political career by ensnaring him in the Keating Five scandal. In the years that followed, he reinvented himself as the scourge of special interests, a crusader for stricter ethics and campaign finance rules, a man of honor chastened by a brush with shame.
But the concerns about Mr. McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.
To his credit, McCain has admitted lapses in judgement on ethical issues in the past but this story is a caution against granting any public figure a free pass on future actions based on past good deeds. McCain's leadership on campaign contribution limits gave the problem of money's influence on politics and politicians a much broader audience, but just as money will find new ways to flow around regulations placed in its path so too must those of us who want to curtail private money's influence remain vigilant in holding our public officials accountable on their commitments to reform.
Numerous elected officials have commented on the fundamental conflict of interest between taking money from an interested party and casting an unbiased vote. The system is weighted against men and women of integrity and steps must be taken to level the playing field once more.
Let's hope that Sen. McCain takes this opportunity to acknowledge that the system is broken, that even the appearance of corruption is enough reason to respond to voters' call for change, and that in order to address questions of access and influence fairly in Washington it is necessary to put full public financing of elections at the top of the next President's agenda.