Image: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP file
When it comes to reforming the system in Washington, presidential candidate John McCain, R-Ariz., may be the real idealist in the race.
By NBC/National Journal Reporter
updated 8/12/2008 1:41:39 PM ET 2008-08-12T17:41:39
Analysis

In an election where so many voters are hungry for "change," both candidates are trying to position themselves as the one who can deliver it in Washington. Barack Obama has made famous the tagline "change we can believe in." The first word in one of John McCain's oft-used campaign slogans is "reform," and in recent weeks on the stump he has begun emphasizing his reputation as a "maverick."

But reading between the lines this week, voters may have gotten a glimpse of who the real reformer is. Although the public back-and-forth between McCain and Obama has focused mostly on energy, residing at the root of the candidates' political attacks may be a fundamental difference in their style of governance.

This most recent debate started around the time McCain released an ad stating that Obama would support an "energy tax" if elected president. This point came from an interview that the Illinois senator did with the San Antonio Express-News in which he was asked about increasing taxes on wind power to fund education. "What we ought to tax is dirty energy like coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas," Obama said, but such a tax is not actually a part of his economic proposals.

Both candidates support a form of cap-and-trade in which polluters are allowed to emit only a certain amount of greenhouse gases but can purchase extra pollution credits from less-polluting companies. Because "dirty energy" producers would likely be forced to purchase additional credits, a cap-and-trade system could in some ways be seen as an "energy tax" -- but then both Obama and McCain would be in favor of it. The only difference between them would be how high the cap and how expensive the credit.

Obama responded to McCain's attack with an ad of his own alleging that the Arizona senator was "in the pocket" of the big oil companies and "wants to give them another four billion in tax breaks." Although this is technically true, these tax breaks would come from a significant cut in the corporate tax rate across the board, which McCain argues would help spur growth and increase employment levels.

Video: McCain condemns Obama energy plan The apparent hypocrisy of Obama's commercial was certainly not lost on the McCain campaign, which quickly pointed out that Obama had supported the last round of tax breaks for big oil companies contained in the so-called Bush-Cheney energy bill. According to an article in the Washington Post written at the time of bill's passage, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 included "an estimated $85 billion worth of subsidies and tax breaks for most forms of energy -- including oil and gas," renewable energies and nuclear power.

McCain refused to support the president's bill, and at the time said his opposition was due to the large number of funding packages targeted at special interests -- specifically Big Oil. He even mused to his colleagues in Congress at the time: "I wonder what it's going take to make the case for fiscal sanity here?"

Although Obama voted for the bill, he too remarked that he felt the bill was misguided, saying in his speech on the Senate floor that he voted for the bill "reluctantly," calling it "a step forward," but "not a very big step."

So while both senators saw major problems with the 2005 energy bill, Obama decided that the good aspects of the bill outweighed the bad, whereas McCain determined that voting against the good parts of the bill was necessary to send a message about pork barrel projects, which he has consistently criticized.

While visiting a nuclear power facility in Michigan last Tuesday, McCain responded to his opponent's commercial and the allegation that he was in the pocket of Big Oil by criticizing Obama's support for the energy bill: "I think he might be a little bit confused because when the energy bill came to the floor of the Senate, full of goodies and breaks for the oil companies, I voted against it. Senator Obama voted for it. People care not only what you say but how you vote."

By Thursday he had found a much pithier message, telling a crowd in Ohio, "I know he hasn't been in the Senate that long, but even in the real world, voting for something -- voting for something means you support it, and voting against something means you oppose it."

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But the U.S. Senate isn't quite the "real world," and voting against something there doesn't always mean you oppose all of it -- especially when a bill is already certain to pass. In a place where compromise and concession are part and parcel of productivity, senators often feel forced to vote for bills they feel are less than perfect in order to achieve their ultimate goal. McCain is opposed to that practice.

"The system is so badly broken that they try to present us with a choice of voting for stuff that has pork barrel projects in it and some good things in it to force us to vote for them," McCain told reporters on his plane last week when asked about his opposition to the energy bill. "I have consistently voted against those kind of entrapments because then pork barrel projects and the good deals and the benefits never stop."

Obviously, McCain hasn't said "no" to every bill that contained earmarks. In fact, he's voted for specific earmarks that he regularly lambastes on the stump, including $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana (McCain often tells audiences that he isn't sure if that was "a paternity issue or a criminal issue"). Still, McCain prides himself on his record of voting against bills that he sees as the products of a "corrupt" system, often bragging about his earmark-free tenure in Congress and promising crowds that he will put an end to the practice if elected president.

Video: McCain calls for 'economic surge' "Public money should serve the public good," McCain told a crowd at the Disabled American Veterans conference in Las Vegas last weekend. "And if it's me sitting in the Oval Office, at the Resolute desk, those wasteful spending bills are going the way of all earmarks, straight back to the Congress with a veto. And you will know their names and I'll make them famous."

Back on his campaign plane, McCain said that this is the fundamental difference between himself and Obama.

"There's a clear difference between someone who nearly a million dollars a day proposes pork barrel projects and therefore would support a bill that has lots of pork in it," McCain said, referring to the total value of Obama's requested earmarks. "Between those of us who are reformers, who are trying to fix the system and saying, no, no, we're not going to take the pork. We're not going to take the special-interest deals that ends up with people in federal prison, with people indicted, and there will be more indictments.... So it's a difference between the reformers and the 'go along to get along' system."

It's probably not fair to simply label Obama as a part of the "go along to get along" system, but his support of the 2005 energy bill suggest a willingness to play Washington's game for what he sees as a greater good -- or at least a "step" in the right direction. Although McCain has supported many compromises during his time in the Senate, and he has said that many of those bills did not turn out exactly as he would have written them, he has also been much more willing to vote against something because, in his view, the bad outweighed the good.

So despite the Obama campaign's reliance on buzzwords such as "hope" and "change," when it comes to reforming the system in Washington, Obama may actually be more of a pragmatist, while McCain may be the real idealist in the race.

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