McCain-Obama squabble does not bode well for reform

Although the conspicuously-public sparring of Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been quelled — publicly, at least – their exchange this week seems a good sign that those hoping for a bipartisan ethical clean-up would be wise not to bet the farm on it.  At least not yet.

In an apparent misunderstanding, McCain, the go-to guy in the Republican drive for lobbying reform, lashed out at Obama, a Democratic leader of the effort, after Obama wrote to McCain, stating the Democrats’ preference to work through the committee system.  McCain interpreted Obama’s letter as an affront to their budding working partnership—and with one letter, seemed willing to kill that partnership altogether.  See the Chicago Sun-Times for more on this bizarre exchange.

McCain had previously called Obama’s reform work "genuine and admirable."  So his biting smackdown of Obama, in which he characterized the junior senator’s interest in reform as "self interested partisan posturing" and "typical rhetorical gloss," came across as more than a bit hasty—and possibly counterproductive, too.  If there’s one big, fat pitch for Democrats to hit in the upcoming campaign season, corruption in government is it.  With that in mind, it’s probably ill-advised for a Republican like McCain to burn bridges with the Democrat most eager to cooperate across party lines—all the while, damaging the likelihood of passing meaningful legislation.  Though his  reform efforts are to be applauded, McCain’s "bipartisan" push is not going to get anywhere if he insists on bowling over those who make an effort to work with him.  Perhaps realizing this, McCain and Obama have apparently come to a truce, agreeing in separate interviews that it’s time to move on.  However, it  unclear so far how the tiff might affect their working relationship.

Not surprisingly, the heat of scandal can bring suspicions and tempers to a rapid boil.  Though rhetorical showdowns are common inside the Beltway, they are unlikely to grease the rusty wheels of bipartisanship that surely will be needed to craft reforms that actually have a chance of making a difference in Washington.  If Obama and McCain are truly sincere about serious reform, they must intuitively realize that getting there requires the force and cooperation of both parties.

-Mary Potori