John McCain Plays Lady Macbeth?

There's a dangerous and wily foe lying in wait for George W. Bush on Capital Hill. No, not the Democrats. They may ruffle the nomination process for the three conservative ravers in Bush's proposed cabinet: John Ashcroft (Justice), Gale Norton (Interior) and Linda Chavez (Labor). But so-called New Democrats have started lining up to collaborate the Filcher of Florida on various fronts, including education legislature, Medicare, and certain tax cuts. (Bush has even signaled he is willing to cast aside school vouchers if NewDems support his other education initiatives.)

There are some potential flashpoints for Bush and Democrats -- Bush's call for oil drilling in the Alaska wilderness, his extravagant ballistic missile defense position, and his let-'er-rip attitude toward U.S. military assistance to Colombia -- but the main source of discomfort for Bush is not the less-than-coherent forces led by Senator Tom Daschle and Representative Dick Gephardt. Bush must keep his eye on the warrior he vanquished: Senator John McCain.

There's a Shakespearean whiff to the Bush-McCain saga. A onetime slacker with royal-family connections employs extreme and questionable measures to defeat a venerated war hero. The beaten man, adhering to honorable traditions, offers his support to his opponent, sacrificing his own cause in order to fight a common enemy. (Hark back to McCain's wince-full speech at the Republican convention. In hailing Bush, he repressed his signature issue of campaign finance reform. McCain had the gaze of a hostage mouthing words written by his captors. Did anyone check to see if his blinks spelled out in Morse code a cry for help?) But then, once the battle is over, the old gladiator plots a mess of trouble for the upstart who bested him.

It is a plot-line the McCain-friendly media -- that might even include me -- will eat up.

So 2001 began with McCain asserting he would push his campaign finance bill on to the Senate agenda before any of Bush's proposals. The measure -- which would turn off the flow of soft money (those large, unrestricted donations, often topping $100,000, from millionaires, corporations and unions) -- is hardly far-reaching, for it would permit private contributions to continue to dominate the political system. But it is a start and, consequently, it is quite inconvenient for Bush and his comrades at the Republican Party.

During the primary campaign last year, when Bush felt the hot breath of McCain the Reformer on his neck, the Texas governor, who had raised more dollars than any other candidate in U.S. history, attempted to rip the reform mantle out of McCain's mitts by rechristening himself as a "reformer with results." This National Guard draft-dodger, who never fully explained why his military file indicates he was MIA during his guard duty, might have as well referred to himself as a war hero, since he was on his way to pocketing over $100 million in contributions. Bush's idea of reform, it turned out, was changing tort laws so that the corporations that have funded his campaigns are protected from consumers who sue when they are injured by unsafe products.

Since his tactical rebirth as a "reformer," Bush -- no shock -- has done nothing to show he truly cares for campaign reform. His recent economic summit was peopled by corporate executives who had financed his campaign. And his transition advisory teams are loaded with corporate lobbyists from K Street.

The Bushies have crowed about the "diversity" of his Cabinet picks. (Isn't that an acknowledgment from the opponents of affirmative action that the ethnic heritage and gender of a job applicant sometimes do deserve consideration?) But that diversity has not spread into the transition SWAT squads.

The gang looking at the Energy Department includes representatives from Occidental Chemical, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the U.S. Oil and Gas Association, the American Forest and Paper Association, and the National Mining Association -- and not one soul from a consumer or environmental outfit.

The team for the Department of Health and Human Services has spots for Merck, Mutual of Omaha, and the American Hospital Association; absent is anyone representing health care consumers.

The transition group for the Labor Department has comfy chairs for the men and women of the National Mining Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, the American Council of Life Insurers and the National Restaurant Association. But there is room in this inn for only two union officials, each from the Teamsters. Where are the occupational safety experts and advocates?

The transition at the U.S. Trade Representative office is being guided by Nike, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Left out are human rights officials and unionists who might diversify the team's view on trade, Nafta, and the WTO.

By the way, the fellow in line to be Bush's liaison with Congress, Nicholas Calio, is a corporate lobbyist who has toiled on behalf of AT&T, Atlantic Richfield, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Anheuser-Busch, Boeing, Motorola, Merrill Lynch and the Securities Industry Association.

Yes, indeed, Corporate America won the election -- well, sort of won. It was victory the old-fashioned way: via helpful breaks from your friends in the system. But Bush campaigned as an outsider, and his transition escorts are not the sort of company one would associate with a reformer who railed against Washington. Not surprisingly, his playmates reflect his funding base, not the American citizenry. Members of the transition advisory teams donated a combined $5.3 million to the Republican Party in the last election cycle. The 36 business leaders Bush brainstormed with in Austin contributed $1.5 million to the GOP. Many of his transition advisers would be displeased if Bush dared endorse a soft-money ban.

By insisting campaign reform be issue-number-one in the opening scene of Bush: The Sequel, McCain has, in his not-too-subtle manner, positioned a poison-tipped bayonet against the softest part of the person who quashed his presidential quest. The Democrats would not do anything so rude.

Even though they control the Senate for the first three weeks of January -- with Vice President Al Gore breaking the 50-50 tie until inauguration day on January 20 -- the Democrats have promised to play nice. They could have chosen, say, to bring the McCain reform bill (which is cosponsored by Democratic Senator Russ Feingold and, in a recent development, by Republican Senator Thad Cochran) to the Senate floor. Instead, it is up to McCain to squeeze Bush, and he has vowed to introduce the newest version of the campaign legislation two days after Bush assumes office.

It gets worse for Bush. McCain has been contemplating a broad reform package that includes an assault on Pentagon waste (watch out Donald Rumsfeld) and a measure to bolster shareholders' rights. In other words, McCain wants to mount a competing parade to the Bush march.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott -- a fellow ill-equipped in temperament to run a split Senate -- has urged McCain to stand down. It's not only that Lott is an avowed enemy of campaign reform. He also has to worry that the McCain charge could foul up Bush's strategy of racking up a few early bipartisan victories before addressing the more contentious issues, such as his super-sized, benefit-the-rich tax cut and Social Security privatization. Can McCain, a mostly conservative Republican, teach the Democrats a lesson in fighter-pilot politics?

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