- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sen. John McCain, an architect of sweeping campaign-finance reform who got walloped by a presidential candidate armed with more than $750 million, predicts that no one will ever again accept federal matching funds to run for the nation’s highest office.

“No Republican in his or her right mind is going to agree to public financing. I mean, that’s dead. That is over. The last candidate for president of the United States from a major party that will take public financing was me,” the Arizona Republican told The Washington Times.

In an hourlong interview at the newspaper with editors and reporters Friday, Mr. McCain also questioned President Obama’s pledge of bipartisanship, saying the Democrat has passed up several prime opportunities to work with Republican lawmakers. What’s more, the new president has abandoned key campaign promises, from Iraq withdrawal to congressional earmarks to nuclear energy, he charged.

“There are statements that then-candidate Obama made during the campaign over and over and over again that obviously he’s not staying with,” Mr. McCain said.

Despite his loss in the 2008 election, the 73-year-old Mr. McCain maintains the fiery passion that helped nearly 60 million Americans cast ballots for him. Throughout the lengthy interview, he was animated, even feisty, sometimes jamming a finger into the conference table for emphasis. But he was also reflective and expansive, delivering his comprehensive views on all of the issues of the day.

While he said he isn’t a “sore loser” and isn’t looking back in anger or bitterness at the often negative campaign run by Mr. Obama, he delivered his trademark “straight talk,” disagreeing with the new president on matters ranging from immigration reform to talks with Iran to nuclear energy.

The diminutive former Navy fighter pilot grew impassioned when he talked about Mr. Obama’s vow to end the partisan rancor that has hung over Washington since the days of President Ronald Reagan. His opponent promised a new postpartisan capital throughout his campaign — something the maverick Republican who often has crossed party lines also called for — but Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama not only hasn’t delivered, he seems to have abandoned the pledge.

Since Inauguration Day, Mr. McCain said, he has been consulted just once by the administration, when a White House lawyer visited to discuss the closing of the U.S. prison at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“Aside from that, I have not known of an occasion where [White House officials] sit down across the table” from Republicans to negotiate the substance of an issue.

“Now, there’s been occasions where the president comes and talks to Republicans, but that’s not good bipartisanship,” he said.

The Arizona senator said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “put it best” when she dismissed Republican complaints that they were left out of negotiations over the $787 billion stimulus package, which garnered just three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House.

“We won, we wrote the bill,” he said, quoting the California Democrat. “That applies not just to that bill, but it does to all of the other pieces of legislation, too.” His voice heavy with exasperation, he said: “We’re not in on the takeoff, and anybody who calls the stimulus package bipartisan — you pick off three Republicans? That’s not bipartisan.”

The 26-year lawmaker said achieving the campaign promise of changing the partisan ways of Washington will take a real commitment from the president.

“I’ve been around for a lot of administrations, and the way you address an issue in a bipartisan fashion is, you invite somebody over and you sit down at a table and you say, ‘OK, here’s our position on this issue, and here’s what we want — what do you want? What’s your priority?’ And you sit down and work out an agreement and you come out and you say, like [former Democratic House Speaker] Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan did, that we’ve agreed and we’re going to push this through,” he said.

For his part, he said he is “actively looking” for ways to put aside party politics and work with Mr. Obama, “because Americans want us to do that today.”

For example, Mr. McCain mentioned his own long-held belief that the country needs to rework its immigration policy — an issue that cost him Republican votes in the election. But he said the president so far has not shown any leadership, and instead appears to be shelving the issue.

“At least say, ‘I want the Congress to take up immigration reform,’” said Mr. McCain, who added that he doesn’t see the same reason for optimism that the Hispanic lawmakers who met with Mr. Obama last week saw.

“I was fascinated the Hispanic Caucus came out all excited — ‘Hey, he said we’re going to have forums and meetings and conferences on it’ — is there somebody that doesn’t understand the issue of immigration? So if the president wants to lead and make a proposal on comprehensive immigration reform with the principle of securing our borders first, then I’m ready to join in. But the president has to lead.”

Immigration and global warming were the two key issues on which Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama found agreement during last year’s presidential campaign, but the Republican said the president has now moved in the wrong direction on both.

“I believe climate change is real. But I never envisioned we would use cap and trade as a revenue-raiser,” he said, criticizing the president’s budget for treating the program of selling the right to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as a backdoor way to raise money for general federal spending.

Mr. McCain said the former Illinois senator has broken several promises he made on the campaign trail, foremost among them his pledge to bring all U.S. troops in Iraq home quickly if elected. Instead, he announced early in his presidency an 18-month timetable for withdrawal, along with a plan to leave 50,000 troops in Iraq.

That, though, hasn’t irked Mr. McCain, who throughout the campaign urged a less hasty drawdown of troops. “I’m glad, because he said he’d get them out, set date, and obviously, that is significantly different, particularly what he said when he was first a candidate,” he said.

But other broken promises infuriate the senator, long a critic of pork-barrel spending through congressional “earmarks” that lawmakers insert into bills for special projects at home.

In the first presidential debate, Mr. Obama said, “We need earmark reform, and when I’m president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely.”

That didn’t happen.

“We’re going to scrub the budget line by line — who read the stimulus package?” Mr. McCain said. Not Mr. Obama, who urged quick passage of the bill, then took a three-day weekend in Chicago before signing the legislation, packed with 9,000 earmarks worth billions of dollars.

Then there’s nuclear energy. During last year’s campaign, Mr. McCain was a big promoter of the technology, which generates electricity without emitting any greenhouse gases. He called for 45 new nuclear power plants to be built by 2030, noting that the last completed U.S. facility had its groundbreaking in 1973 — and even visited a plant while campaigning.

While Mr. Obama portrayed himself as open to nuclear power, Mr. McCain said the president has slammed the door shut on any new plants by having his administration block storing nuclear waste at a planned facility in Nevada and by opposing the reprocessing of spent fuel.

“In case you’ve missed it, this administration has killed nuclear power,” the Arizonan said, noting that the administration’s “positions make it impossible for nuclear power to be a viable alternative.”

“You explain to me how you can have nuclear power in this country if you don’t store spent nuclear fuel and you don’t reprocess it,” he said.

The senator then said Mr. Obama has “been a bit contradictory on trade,” adding that the president “said he was going to unilaterally renegotiate NAFTA, then said he was for free trade, and then he signed two bills” with protectionist elements, “one of them with ‘Buy American’ provisions in it and the other one with the Mexican trucks,” canceling a cross-border pilot program expanded by President George W. Bush under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“Both of them are sending a message to the world that the United States is practicing protectionism. “This is very dangerous,” he said. “One of my highest concerns about this administration is protectionism, and the Mexican truck thing was inexcusable, absolutely inexcusable.”

On campaign finance, Mr. McCain said last year’s election has forever changed the way presidential elections are run. He said Mr. Obama carried traditional red states such as North Carolina by outspending him, and specified that in battleground Florida, the Democrat outspent him on television and radio advertising by $28 million.

Saying he holds “admiration, not anger” toward Mr. Obama for that performance, Mr. McCain called the 2008 race the nail in the coffin for taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns.

Mr. McCain raised his own money for the primary season but accepted public financing for the general election, constraining himself to about $84 million for the campaign’s last two months. Mr. Obama, by contrast, stayed outside the public system for the primary and general elections, raising a total of $779 million, including $150 million in September.

“There’s just an ability to raise so much more money now, and they did it very, very effectively,” he said. “They were able to raise incredible amounts of money. But don’t think it was all small donors; they raised the same percentage of big donors versus small donors as we did, they just did a hell of a lot more of it.”

Still, he said he did not regret sticking to his pledge to accept public financing, but noted with a hint of frustration that “President Obama made the same commitment.”

The senator appears to have emerged from the campaign just as combative as ever and even seemed to relish the chance to fight despite the obstacles Republicans face by dint of suffering so many losses in congressional elections.

In addition to his desk staying put on the east end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Mr. McCain has other constant reminders of the campaign, such as the bracelet of Army Spc. Matthew Stanley, who was killed in Iraq in 2006 and whose mother asked then-candidate McCain to wear the keepsake and to promise to make sure her son “did not die in vain.”

Mr. McCain said he has been pleased that Mr. Obama has appeared to swerve to the middle on foreign affairs, pointing out that his former opponent has embraced and even expanded Mr. Bush’s Merida Initiative to fight drugs in Mexico. But the senator said that has not played out on domestic issues, where Mr. Obama, he said, has followed the lead of Democrats in Congress.

“I think that the president is governing largely centrist on national security policy, but I think he’s now governing far to the left on domestic policies,” Mr. McCain said.

With the second round of financial institution bailouts, the $787 billion stimulus spending package, the $410 billion fiscal 2009 spending bill and the president’s proposed $3 trillion-plus 2010 budget, Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama is “not only committing generational theft, but it’s also a transfer of our economy to government control” greater than that of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

“It’s not only the incredible deficits that we’re running up, it’s also a transfer of government to look more and more along — and I’m not calling it, quote, socialism — I am calling it more along the lines of the way that European economies are structured,” he said.

Mr. McCain mentioned the anxiety of top Chinese authorities about America’s huge debt, to the point of broaching the subject of a new world currency.

“Of course, the Chinese are nervous. They’ve got a trillion dollars of our paper. If we continue to run up debts and deficits of astronomical proportions as we are, what is the way out? It’s to print money and debase the currency,” he said. “If I were the Chinese, I would be nervous about American deficit spending.”

He also said the massive debt is beginning to resonate across the country. “American public opinion is beginning to turn, it certainly is in my state, if you sample the phone calls. Public opinion is becoming more and more concerned about it.”

The senator was passionate about Iran and continued to warn the president about the consequences of engaging in face-to-face talks with the rogue nation’s leaders.

“I would not sit down across the table until I had some assurance that there was going to be some result,” he said. Noting that Iran’s leaders have called for the annihilation of Israel, he called Mr. Obama’s decision to hold direct talks naive.

“All my life I’ve heard, ‘Why don’t we just sit down together and then we can work these things out?’ It’s not sitting down together. It’s resolving the issues of fundamental beliefs and principles that exist between us and other countries,” he said. “It is not the lack of communications in this world that divides us between us and those who have a different view about the future of the world. It is the lack of commitment to common principles that all of us are created equal and all of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights.”

The senator, who was maligned during the campaign for not using e-mail, also joked about his new tech savviness. With 300,000 followers, he is one of the stars of the social-networking site Twitter, which limits users to 140 characters per message.

“Shows that short messages are far more palatable than the long answers like I gave here,” he said with a laugh.

Christina Bellantoni, Patrice Hill and Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this report.