George Will

WASHINGTON - Certain kinds of conservatives, distrusting Richard Nixon's ideological elasticity, rejected him -- until 1973. Although it had become clear his administration was a crime wave, they embraced him because the media were his tormentors. Today such conservatives, whose political compasses are controlled, albeit negatively, by The New York Times, have embraced John McCain. He, although no stickler about social niceties (see below), should thank the Times, for two reasons.

First, the Times muddied, with unsubstantiated sexual innuendo about a female lobbyist, a story about McCain's flights on jets owned by corporations with business before the Senate Commerce Committee, and his meeting with a broadcaster (McCain at first denied it happened; the broadcaster insists it did, and McCain now agrees) who sought and received McCain's help in pressuring the Federal Communications Commission. Perhaps McCain did nothing corrupt, but he promiscuously accuses others of corruption, or the "appearance" thereof. And he insists that the appearance of corruption justifies laws criminalizing political behavior -- e.g., broadcasting an electioneering communication that "refers to" a federal candidate during the McCain-Feingold blackout period close to an election.

McCain should thank the Times also because its semi-steamy story distracted attention from an unsavory story about McCain's dexterity in gaming the system for taxpayer financing of campaigns. Last summer, when his mismanagement of his campaign left it destitute, he applied for public funding, which entails spending limits. He seemed to promise to use taxpayer dollars as partial collateral for a bank loan.

There are two ways for a candidate to get on Ohio's primary ballot -- comply with complex, expensive rules for gathering signatures, or simply be certified to receive taxpayer funding. McCain's major Republican rivals did the former. He did the latter.

Democrats, whose attachment to campaign reforms is as episodic as McCain's, argue that having made such uses of promised matching funds, McCain is committed to taking them and abiding by spending limits -- which would virtually silence his campaign until the September convention. This would be condign punishment for his argument that restricting spending does not restrict speech. But Bradley Smith offers him some support.

When Smith chaired the Federal Election Commission, he voiced skepticism about the wisdom and constitutionality of aspects of McCain-Feingold's campaign regulations. McCain responded characteristically, impugning Smith's character. When, at a 2004 Senate hearing, Smith nevertheless extended his hand to McCain, McCain refused to shake it.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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