Though they differ in many ways, John McCain and Barack Obama have one thing in common: Each sees the other as a posturing phony. When McCain talks about Obama on the stump, he trades his typical graciousness for sarcasm and contempt. When McCain lectured Obama about the future of Iraq last week, he did so with what The New York Times called "a tone of belittlement in his voice." McCain has also called Obamamania a swindle. "America is not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change that promises no more than a holiday from history," he said in Wisconsin last month. And he has huffed that "I don't seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with personal greatness." After Obama issued a press release last May noting that conditions were still dangerous enough in Iraq that McCain had been forced to wear a "flack jacket" during a public tour of a Baghdad market, a McCain release taunted Obama for his inexperience, adding, "By the way, Senator Obama, it's a 'flak' jacket, not a 'flack' jacket." For good measure, an unnamed McCain aide drove home the point to the Politico, saying that "Obama wouldn't know the difference between an RPG and a bong."
Obama has swung back in similar, if somewhat milder, fashion. Noting that McCain had changed his position on the Bush tax cuts, Obama joked last month that "the Straight Talk Express lost its wheels." Later, he cracked in a Democratic debate that McCain "traded his principles for his party's nomination." Snickering at the idea that McCain is a scourge of lobbyists, Obama recently said that "he takes their money and has put them in charge of his campaign."
It's little wonder that Obama and McCain would be casting each other as fakers. At the core of each man's political identity is the image of a reformer determined to take on and reshape the corrupt culture of Washington, D.C. To Obama, McCain is a fixture of that system, one whose reform talk belies his debts to the GOP establishment and its lobbyist machine. McCain, meanwhile, sees Obama as an upstart self-promoter whose talk about reform isn't matched by a record of hard work to achieve it. "In a weird sort of way, they're fighting over a change-and-reform mantle from two ends of the same argument," says Dan Schnur, a former senior aide to McCain. And that was never more obvious than in a 2006 clash between the men, well before Obama was even a candidate. That episode revealed the importance of reform to both men, but also the pitfalls they're finding as they walk the high ground.
IN FEBRUARY 2006, WASHINGTON WAS REELING from a wave of corruption scandals. Indictments had come down on Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and Republican Representative Duke Cunningham. Congress polices itself as willingly as a child cleans his room, but the scandals had jolted both parties into action. Democrats saw ethics reform as a partisan issue that could help win back the House and Senate that November. Republicans, meanwhile, battled furiously to cast corruption as a nonpartisan story about the culture of Washington, not just their party.
At the center of this frenzy were McCain and Obama. McCain had held months of committee hearings about the Abramoff scandal, which he capped with an ethics reform bill cracking down on congressional travel at lobbyists' expense, discounted trips on corporate jets, and his overriding pet obsession, earmark spending.
Obama, meanwhile, had been tapped by then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid as the Democrats' point man on ethics reform. Still several months from signaling a run for president, Obama was a perfect reform messenger--a Washington newcomer sullied by few past transactions with lobbyists. He had also co-sponsored a strong reform measure with Mr. Ethics himself, Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Obama had also led a lobbying reform push in the Illinois state legislature about a decade earlier (for which he was "literally hooted and catcalled" by colleagues, as one recently told The New York Times).
Senate Republicans had little genuine interest in clamping down on their Gucci-loafered friends. But they also knew feigning concern before the voters was a must. Democrats weren't interested in teaming up, rejecting overtures from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and instead holding their own rally for reform at the Library of Congress. So Frist chose his colleague Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania to develop an alternative bill that Republicans could tout. Santorum assembled a group of senators from both parties, among them John McCain. Though personally disliked by many of his GOP colleagues, McCain offered a gold seal of reform credibility thanks to his past battles on campaign finance and pork barrel spending.
On February 1, McCain invited Obama to a meeting of Santorum's working group. Obama accepted, explaining in a press conference that day that he would let the Republicans there know that "I am prepared to work across the aisle and make some things happen." That evening, he joined several other attendees--including Republicans Trent Lott, Susan Collins, David Vitter, and Johnny Isakson, and Democrats Mark Pryor and Joe Lieberman--in Santorum's office. Munching on grapes and other finger food, the senators and their aides had what one participant described as a long and substantive discussion of arcane ethics issues, such as what exact price constitutes a proper reimbursement for travel on a corporate jet. One Democratic aide who attended another meeting with Obama on this subject calls him completely fluent in the topic and better informed than virtually all of his colleagues. But Santorum found Obama off-putting: After showing up late and receiving a "syrupy" welcome from McCain, Santorum says, Obama began preaching down to his colleagues. "He went on and on about how ethical his life is and how he does things more ethically than everybody and on and on and on," Santorum says. "And, when we tried to come back to substance, we heard more about how he does things. Which is all really interesting but not particularly productive in terms of trying to find common ground to get things done." (Though Santorum has obvious partisan reasons to bad-mouth Obama, his response suggests there could be limits to a President Obama's ability to charm D.C. Republicans.)
A day after attending the confab, Obama sent McCain a letter thanking him for the invitation but also indicating that he preferred a reform bill championed by Harry Reid and other Democratic leaders, which had no Republican sponsors.
McCain went ballistic. "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," he wrote back in a letter. McCain said Democratic leaders were simply using ethics as a political club in the fall elections, and he hinted that Obama had decided to carry Reid's water rather than negotiate a bipartisan bill. "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."
In McCainland, the episode had revealed Obama as a mere Democratic partisan masquerading as a bridge-builder. "There was all this chest-pounding about how he was going to reach across the aisle and work in a bipartisan manner to solve all America's problems," says former longtime McCain adviser John Weaver. "And up comes an issue which seems perfectly suited for him, and he met Senator McCain, who has correctly long been the champion of this ... [and] he decided for whatever reason he was going to take the more partisan position."
"It was evident to me from day one that Obama's instructions were to make sure this doesn't happen," Santorum adds. "I'm not blaming Obama here--he was Harry Reid's surrogate."
MCCAIN HAD A POINT. OBAMA seemed to have chosen his party's interests over the bipartisan approach to reform he had touted--an interpretation conceded to me by another pro-reform Democrat close to the process. Though Obama was genuinely committed to the issue, in this case, with some Republicans pursuing bad-faith stall-tactic strategies, reform and true bipartisanship probably didn't go hand in hand. Nor was it likely that Obama, a newcomer to the Senate with presidential ambitions, was keen for Democratic leaders to see him as overly willing to deal with the enemy.
In the face of McCain's broadside, Obama kept his signature cool. The same day, he responded to McCain with a letter of his own saying that he was "puzzled" by his colleague's fiery response, as he intended the Democratic bill to be "the basis for a bipartisan solution." "I confess that I have no idea what has prompted your response," Obama calmly added.
Meanwhile, the episode revealed two essential qualities about McCain. One is his delicate sense of honor. McCain felt that Obama had committed the cardinal sin of insincerity by talking about bipartisanship and then retreating to the safety of his caucus. He was also clearly enraged that Obama had released his first letter to the press before McCain had had a chance to read it himself. (Obama's letter was actually e-mailed to reporters by Reid's office, fueling McCain's suspicions that Obama was acting as a partisan tool.) Moreover, Obama's first letter had also implied that McCain supported creating an ethics "task force," a Republican proposal widely viewed as a Potemkin stalling tactic; Obama, in other words, had doubted McCain's sincerity as a reformer, something the Arizonan could not countenance.
The other, less appealing, quality that McCain had exposed was his temper. McCain has long battled the charge that he employs a self-destructive anger--earlier this year, Mitt Romney compiled for the press a list of famous McCain outbursts. So McCain never sent Obama a letter in response, and, in public, he cooled his rhetoric. (Many people suggest that McCain's tempestuous chief of staff, Mark Salter, helped stoke the affair--or at least failed to save McCain from himself. "Sometimes it's not just John's temper, it's the staff's temper, too," explains Weaver, without naming names. "After that letter was sent, I threatened to take the 'send' button off the sender's computer.") The following night, February 7, "Hardball" host Chris Matthews described McCain's letter on his show as "brilliantly angry," but he also asked McCain twice whether "you stand by your letter." McCain said he did, but assiduously tried to resist the anger narrative. "I wasn't angry," he insisted.
Ultimately, McCain and Obama defused the tension. As it happened, they were both scheduled to testify before a committee hearing on reform later that week. Obama cracked up the room by opening his testimony with a reference to "my pen pal, John McCain." It was an early glimpse of Obama's skill, so evident in the primaries, at shrugging off shots from his opponents. "It reminds me a bit of the way he has handled attacks from Hillary in the debates," says a Senate Democratic aide.
Before long, each man was back at work trying to reclaim the moral high ground. That March, the Senate voted on a broad reform bill that had come out of multiple committee hearings. It passed overwhelmingly, 90-8, but the bill was not nearly as tough as government-watchdog groups had hoped. Both Obama and McCain voted against it. Obama insisted any reform needed to restrict the use of corporate jets and also transfer ethics enforcement out of Congress and into a new separate commission. McCain, meanwhile, focused on earmarking, a subject dear to fiscal conservatives, and one he emphasized as he geared up his presidential campaign. ("The good news is there will be more indictments, and we will be revisiting this issue," McCain noted.)
That bill stalled in the House, and it wasn't until 2007 that the new Democratic majority passed reform into law. Though he still had qualms, Obama voted for it. McCain, however, held his ground. Each man got something he wanted. Obama issued press releases bragging that he'd played a central role in a major legislative feat. And McCain maintained a reformist high ground while dismissing the Democratic achievement as an empty gesture. Still, for all their talk of bipartisanship, neither man had demonstrated much of it.
All the more reason why both are determined to prove their reform bona fides. After the initial blowup the previous winter, Obama had assured reporters there would be no lasting hard feelings. "[M]oving forward," he said, "I think what's clear is there's probably more in common between myself and Senator McCain on a lot of this stuff than some of our other colleagues." But that may be precisely the problem. Small differences make for big fights.