Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

I’ll admit it: I used to admire John McCain.

To paraphrase the UFO poster from “The X Files,” I wanted to believe.

Specifically, I wanted to believe the guy talking tough about campaign finance reform was committed to getting money out of politics. This was the Arizona senator who in 2002 taped a radio ad praising his state’s “clean elections” system. It provides public money to candidates so they don’t have to finance campaigns with corporate contributions — the kind given in exchange for legislative favors. McCain’s support for clean elections, I thought, proved he wanted to end corruption.

But by the time the senator showed up here in Colorado last week for a fundraiser at Denver’s Petroleum Club, I knew I had been duped.

As The Washington Post reports, McCain is now “assiduously courting both lobbyists and their wealthy clients, offering them private audiences as part of his fundraising.” He has more lobbyists as fundraisers than any other White House contender, and he allows lobbyists to simultaneously work in his campaign and represent business clients. In fact, the Post reported that his chief adviser “said he does a lot of his [lobbying] work by telephone from McCain’s Straight Talk Express bus.”

Such antics have run that “Straight Talk Express” into the ditch of hypocrisy. Just look at McCain’s actions on two huge issues: energy and campaign finance reform.

While McCain prepared his presidential run in 2005, a bill came up to permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). McCain — the “maverick” who voted to prevent ANWR drilling in 2003 — sided with the oil industry and reversed his vote. He has since signed on more than a dozen staffers and fundraisers who have represented energy interests, while his presidential campaign has been rewarded with $393,000 from the oil and gas industry.

Likewise, Democrats in 2006 authored legislation to implement a version of Arizona’s clean elections system at the federal level. McCain, who previously told PBS the system could be a national model, “dismissed the proposal with a flat ‘no,'” according to The Hill newspaper. As the nonpartisan Public Campaign Action Fund reports, McCain is the only current presidential candidate refusing to support public financing of elections.

Then again, McCain’s flip-flopping is likely the re-emergence of the real McCain — the longtime corporate crony.

For example, before voting against Arctic drilling in 2003, McCain voted to support such drilling in 1995 (yes, the “straight talker” was first for it, then against it, then for it again).

Additionally, McCain may have presented himself in 2000 as the crusader against corruption and in 2002 as a champion of clean elections, but he was originally a member of the Keating Five — the senators involved in an influence-peddling scheme during the savings and loan meltdown of the 1980s.

Now, rushing to build a war chest, McCain is doing everything short of putting a For Sale sign on his forehead. During a nationwide fundraising tour, he was showered with big donations after defending the lobbyist-written trade policies that have driven down wages. He is sure to raise even more cash as he shows his Keating Five roots when shilling for the financial industry. Last week, approaching the 21st anniversary of that scandal, McCain followed the advice of banking executive-turned-campaign-adviser Phil Gramm and demanded Congress oppose new Wall Street regulations in the wake of the credit crisis.

Indeed, this reversion to form is McCain’s catharsis of corruption, proving the senator is just another hired gun. In so publicly embracing Big Money, his message has become a series of embarrassing admissions — a campaign version of the book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.” There is just one difference: This Arizona hit man expresses absolutely no remorse.

David Sirota is a nationally syndicated weekly newspaper columnist for Creators Syndicate. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government and How We Take It Back (Crown 2006). He is also a senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network. His second book, The Uprising, is due in the Spring of 2008.