A Perfect Storm for Political Reform

By Paul Glastris
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How John McCain, a man widely disliked by many in his own party, became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is still a bit of a mystery to me. His reputation for heroism in Vietnam certainly helped. So too did his advocacy of the surge. That he faced no conservative competitor who could unify the base was surely a major factor. And Republicans do traditionally nominate the candidate who is "next in line." (McCain came in second in the 2000 primaries.)

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Regardless of how it happened, the fact is that the GOP has done something unusual and potentially important: it has placed a reformer at the top of its ticket. McCain's most famous legislative accomplishment, one movement conservatives have never forgiven him for, is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, otherwise known as the McCain-Feingold law, which banned soft-money contributions to political parties. He also spearheaded investigations of the connections between corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff and bigwigs in his own party. He has long railed against congressional abuse of earmarks, infuriating colleagues on both sides of the aisle. And in one of the central fronts in the war over presidential power, the use of torture, McCain sided with the rule of law and the Constitution, not the Bush White House.

The reason this is such a big deal is that Republicans almost never nominate reformers for president. The last time they did so was in 1928, and even then, the candidate they chose, Herbert Hoover, was known mostly for noncontroversial government efficiency-type measures. You have to go all the way back to the trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt to find a GOP candidate willing to break some political china in the name of reform.

Democrats have been more prone to choose process-reform-minded candidates (think McGovern, Carter, and Dukakis). This year, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fit that mold, though to different degrees. Both promise to put a lid on no-bid contracting. Both favor public financing of congressional campaigns, the holy grail of campaign finance reformers. Hillary has the more fleshed-out position on reforming the voting process (paper records of every vote, etc.). But she has not put reform of Washington at the center of her rhetoric the way Obama has done. Obama also has the stronger reform record, having co- authored a major overhaul of lobbying rules and a law mandating that all federal grants and contracts be listed in easily searchable Internet databases.

Still, regardless of who wins the Democratic primary, the 2008 general election will feature two reasonably committed political reformers. Such a thing hasn't happened since 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt mounted a third-party challenge to the GOP incumbent William Howard Taft and handed the election to the progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The conditions are right, in other words, for a perfect storm for political reform. We could have a campaign in which the candidates try to one-up each other with ambitious proposals to make the machinery of American democracy more open, effective, and equal, with the winner carrying a mandate for change into the White House.

But just because the potential is there doesn't mean it will happen. Political consultants have long argued that political process issues don't move voters, and the candidates right now seem to be following that advice. Obama is giving inspiring speeches about changing the ways of Washington, but he seldom talks specifics. The proposals he has put forth, and that you'll find on his Web site, are of the worthy-but-not-transformational variety (an independent watchdog to investigate congressional ethics charges; national broadband town hall meetings for cabinet secretaries). McCain, worried about securing his base, is barely even talking about reform, and instead of offering new reform ideas, he is defending himself against charges that he is too close to lobbyists. He is backsliding in other areas as well. Most alarmingly, as we note in this month's cover package (see "No More"), McCain has gone from leading the charge against "enhanced interrogations" to voting to protect the CIA's ability to conduct them.

If we want to get a virtuous bidding war started between the candidates, we're going to need auctioneers. That would be members of the press. Normally, political reporters don't feel comfortable challenging candidates to propose reform ideas that go beyond what another candidate has offered—to do so seems too much like advocacy. But this year could be different. The public's disgust with the current rules in Washington has reached new heights. Also, reform is the logical extension of many of the big issues that candidates are already talking about: the influence of lobbyists, excess partisanship, and the abuse of presidential power, to name three. And the fact that the candidates have themselves claimed to be reformers gives journalists a chance to do what they like best: ask "Gotcha" questions.

Indeed, one can imagine a whole debate this summer devoted to the topic of reform. The questions practically write themselves:

"Senator, you've harshly criticized excessive congressional earmarks. But presidents also include thousands of earmarks in obscure budgetary documents they send to Capitol Hill. As president, will you pledge to cut the number of presidential earmarks and make those you do offer easily accessible to the public?"

"Senator, you've bemoaned the bitter partisanship in Washington. But as you know, that partisanship is partly fueled by the way state parties carve up congressional districts to make them ideologically homogenous. This protects members from being challenged, and gives them little incentive to break from their party or reach out to moderate or independent voters. If you really care about restoring bipartisanship, would you support legislation by Reps. Zoe Lofgren and John Tanner that would mandate the creation of independent commissions to draw congressional districts without regard to politics?"

"Senator, many critics have accused President Bush of using signing statements as an extraconstitutional means to avoid executing laws that Congress writes but the president disagrees with. You have criticized the president for this practice. But would you support legislation by Senator Arlen Specter that would prohibit courts from using signing statements to interpret whether laws are being faithfully carried out?"

"Senator, President Bush has refused to allow current and former White House aides such as Harriet Miers and Joshua Bolten to testify before Congress regarding their knowledge of the U.S. attorney firing scandal, even though Congress has subpoenaed them to appear. Do you believe this is an appropriate application of the president's executive privilege powers, and if not, where would you draw the line?"

"Senator, the Federal Communications Commission has traditionally restricted the number of media outlets any one company can own in a single community in order to preserve a multiplicity of voices. Under the current administration, the FCC has repeatedly relaxed those rules. Do you agree with the FCC's policies, and to what extent should one company be allowed to control the media outlets in a single community?"

"Senator, do you think that representatives of the District of Columbia should have the right to vote in the House of Representatives, and if so, would you demand that Congress send you legislation granting such voting rights to the District?"

Wolf, Tim, Chris—take it away!

   

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Paul Glastris is editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.  
 
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