John McCain has sworn that he won’t under “any circumstances” be George W.’s running mate next year, but Thursday he sounded like running with Bill Bradley is OK.
All they have in common is a public allergy to the money they collect in private. Maybe that’s enough.
Mr. Bradley resolutely refuses to say very much about his fund-raisers, and Mr. McCain has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations at the mercy of his Senate Commerce Committee panel. It’s a puzzlement. What are a couple of nice boys doing in bad company?
“We believe that money is eating away at the core of our democracy, like acid eating away at cloth,” Mr. Bradley told the usual handful of frozen voters in New Hampshire.
Mr. McCain confessed that he had been bought, or at least rented, on occasion. “I believe there have been times when I believe I have been influenced because the big donor buys access to my office and we all know that access buys influence,” he said. “That taints all of us. It taints me.”
That was a little strong for the great dribbler and hook-shot artist. He agrees that money corrupts others with less-elevated moral tone, but it never corrupted him. If John McCain is going to be Bill Bradley’s running mate, he’ll have to watch his mouth.
The two men then signed an agreement forswearing “soft money” if they are the nominees of their parties. Mr. Bradley hedged on that, too. He won’t necessarily cripple himself if George Bush is the Republican nominee, which he appears to believe is likely.
For anyone looking for more foreshadowing of how the day’s events won’t actually matter very much, they signed the agreement on the very spot where President Clinton and Newt Gingrich, then the speaker of the House, pledged to “reform” campaign-finance laws. That great venture was a great fizzle, too.
As goofy as their joint photo-op might have been, neither man has anything to lose. The Bradley campaign appears to have peaked, except in the pages of certain newspapers and on the TV networks, and Mr. McCain’s people are terrified that he’ll be all dressed up by the media with nowhere to go after New Hampshire.
The issue of campaign finance is only slightly goofier for a Republican than for a Democrat. It’s an issue that, if the polls mean anything at all, almost nobody cares about. Given the overwhelming media preference for Democrats and the lack of restraint in showing it, what Mr. McCain actually signed was a Republican suicide pact. His obsession with campaign finance Tucker Carlson of the Weekly Standard calls it a “hobby,” like a crazy uncle’s obsession with taxidermy is puzzling to anyone trying to figure out why he thinks a suicide note is a winning card in Republican primaries. Of all the issues on the radar screen, “campaign-finance reform” ranks close to the bottom, somewhere between “worthwhile Canadian initiative” and “Lower Volta textile imports.”
Some Bradley and McCain campaign aides concede this in private conversations. But the issue is wildly popular among the men and women who make up the campaign tail, the aides, consultants, pollsters and above all the reporters and columnists who can’t wait to shut up everyone but themselves. They want to ration who gets to say what about which issue.
The Republicans to whom Mr. McCain is presumably addressing his campaign unless he is in fact maneuvering to run as something else, like Pat Buchanan have everything to lose if free speech is maimed and mutilated in the name of purifying politics. Yet Mr. McCain, understandably intoxicated by the flattering coverage he reads and sees (temporary though it surely is), seems determined to affront everyone in his party.
Noting George W.’s determined resistance to those who wish his campaign ill with demands that he swear off money freely given to defend and promote conservative causes, Mr. McCain said: “I can understand why the vice president would oppose it, but I can’t understand why Gov. Bush would oppose such a thing.”
Chimed in his strategic partner of the day: “I think [Mr. Bush] has … snubbed his nose at the public finance laws.” He praised himself for his “sense of bipartisanship” in making common cause with Mr. McCain. Other Democrats fell all over themselves on Be Nice to McCain Day. Al Gore ran a full-page ad in a New Hampshire newspaper to say that John McCain showed “real courage” in taking positions unpopular in his own party and popular among his party’s enemies.
So much noise about so little on an icy day in New Hampshire, when the sour aroma of bad cooking clung stubbornly to the frosty air.