McCain's self-righteous [expletive] has caught up with him
Yahoo News/
Jeanne Cummings
Wed May 21, 5:29 AM ET

More than a few Republican lobbyists in Washington are scratching their heads these days, asking: So this is the thanks we get?

It was a small band of loyal lobbyists who stood by presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain last August when his campaign went broke and his White House aspirations seemed doomed.

They raised money for him under impossible odds and kept him company in budget hotels during his darkest days.

Now they are under siege as McCain purges active lobbyists from his campaign team in a quest to wrest the reformist title from Democrat Barack Obama, his likely opponent in this fall's general election.

The dramatic turnabout among these once-embattled allies may be long forgotten by Republicans — and the voters — come November. But for now, it seems a modern-day case study of Harry S. Truman's famous truism: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Five lobbyists have been shown the door of McCain's Virginia campaign headquarters in the past week, including Tom Loeffler, who is largely credited with keeping the senator's primary campaign financially afloat long enough to capture the Republican presidential nomination.

"If it was OK to have these people working for you in February, why is it not OK today?" asked one Republican lobbyist who counts a friend among the new McCain outcast class.

The timing, motivation and even the details of the policy itself all are the subject of debates and consternation this week at water coolers, in restaurants and on conference calls on K Street.

"McCain's self-righteous [expletive] has caught up with him. Now he's got himself in a jam," said another Republican lobbyist who asked to remain anonymous because he is a campaign volunteer. "He's got to change the subject back to economic growth and taxation and the war on terror."

And there's this thought from another McCain supporter: "I find it a little offensive. It was good enough to get my $2,300 donation. If we're not good enough, then send my check back. It pisses me off."

Republican lobbyists aren't the only ones feeling the heat.

In his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama is refusing donations from federally registered lobbyists and excluding them from his official campaign staff. (They can still be advisers and volunteers, and their spouses' checks are certainly welcome.)

The Illinois senator's lobbyist backers adapted to those rules months ago. But they're creating some angst today for advocates who banked on Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign.

With it now sputtering, those lobbyists are scrambling to figure out how to ingratiate themselves with the Obama team other than with the classic political pivot: issuing a big donation check.

"The whole anti-lobbyist shtick is disingenuous and annoying on both sides," said one lobbyist.

The emergence of Obama as the presumptive Democratic nominee is a major reason many believe McCain imposed restrictions on the role of lobbyists inside his campaign.

It's no secret on Capitol Hill that McCain, a 22-year Senate veteran and co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, has been irked by the Democratic newcomer's attempt to grab the reformer title by often citing his work in the Illinois Legislature.

Both campaigns are using the issue to compete for independent voters in November by claiming to be distant from the special interests in Washington.

A continuing taint from the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal is also cited as motivation.

Abramoff raised big money for President Bush and was later convicted of bribing administration officials to win favorable action for his clients. As Senate Commerce Committee chairman then, McCain uncovered much of that scandal.


"It's a different time, and we have a different set of rules out there in the way the press covers things," said Ron Kaufman, a Republican lobbyist who supports McCain. "We have to adjust, and we should. It's not about us; it's about him."

Still, McCain's tardy concern about lobbyists in his campaign and the strikingly public enforcement of the new policy has left many supporters bruised and sent others into hiding.

When two of McCain's part-time lobbyist supporters were contacted by Politico this week, both said they had filled out their compliance forms and assumed they were in the clear. But neither wanted to go on the record and risk calling attention to themselves, either.

"The McCain folks seem confused. They've created an issue for Obama, and it strikes me as mindless politics to start eating your own like this. Not every lobbyist is Jack Abramoff," said one Republican operative who requested anonymity to speak frankly.

Even the anti-lobbyist policy itself is the subject of debate.

To have a formal role in the campaign, lobbyists must quit their day job — at some point. Phil Gramm, the senator's top economic adviser for more than a year, deregistered last month as a lobbyist for UBS, a major financial house caught up in the subprime mess that is now the subject of legislation on Capitol Hill.

Lobbyist volunteers also aren't allowed to serve as advisers on issues on which they once lobbied. In other words, the experts on certain issues aren't allowed to help McCain develop policy in those areas.

Meanwhile, lobbyists who help raise money appear to be able to keep their day jobs as long as they don't have an official title and they don't lobby McCain's Senate office on any issue.

"I frankly don't understand the policy, and what parts of it I do understand actually don't make sense," said Jan Baran, a Republican campaign finance legal expert. "Even though someone has been a lobbyist for the last 30 years, if they are not a lobbyist for the next five months, they are OK for the campaign?"

But perhaps the greatest ironies to emerge from McCain's lobbyist roundup are the people who are enforcing and defending it.

They are campaign manager Rick Davis, who in 2006 took a leave from his lobbying firm, Davis Manafort & Freedman, but whose name is still a big draw on its shingle; and chief political adviser Charlie Black, founder of another of Washington's biggest lobbying houses.

"It's just ridiculous," said Jeffrey J. Connaughton, a veteran Democratic lobbyist at the bipartisan firm Quinn Gillespie. "To send a high-powered lobbyist out to say that you don't do business with lobbyists, it's myopic."

Despite his own partisan background, Connaughton also is no fan of Obama's policy.

"What the lesson has been in the past is that when you try to appeal to people by saying that you are going to be more ethical than anybody in history, you sort of set yourself up for the media coming after you," Connaughton said.

Eamon Javers, Lisa Lerer, Samuel Loewenberg and Chris Frates contributed to this story.

Original Text