Explaining to do

Being a front-runner has always spelled trouble for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Following an eight-year struggle to become his party’s nominee, McCain got about a day to enjoy it before he hit a wall. Just 24 hours after the Wisconsin victory that all but decided it, The New York Times broke its infamous story about McCain’s ties to lobbyists. The morning after he faced the cameras to deny its veracity and began what appears to be a brutal battle ahead.

Unfair and unsubstantiated implications of an affair aside, questions raised by the Times story strike at the core of McCain’s strength and can help the Democratic Party turn pin pricks on McCain’s record into gaping holes in his appeal. The passionate, authentic reformer and scourge of special interests is now another politician under the influence — at the very least, the influence of the lobbyists he has employed in his campaign, more than in any other campaign.

Earlier this week the Democratic National Committee released a video in which candidate George W. Bush emphatically states in 2000 that McCain had raised more money in the Washington area and from political action committees than any other candidate, including from people with business before his committee. McCain is seen in another 2000 clip explaining that he rode on corporate jets when his campaign had almost no money. “I could not get around from one place to another to meet my campaign schedule without it,” he says curtly.

Eight years later there are new inconsistencies. In his press conference to refute the Times, McCain denied ever contacting the paper but was corrected by a reporter there and admitted that yes, he did, in fact, call Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor. McCain also contradicted the claims, made on the record, by former top adviser John Weaver that he informed McCain a continued association with Vicki Iseman could jeopardize his 2000 presidential campaign. McCain even called Weaver a friend with whom he speaks regularly, but he rebutted him nonetheless.

Then the following day Lowell “Bud” Paxson, the broadcaster for whom McCain wrote a controversial letter to the Federal Communications Commission, weighed in and contradicted McCain’s denial of ever meeting with Paxson. “I remember going there to meet with him,” Paxson told The Washington Post.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is now also weighing in on another McCain decision that could be his ruin.

By agreeing to matching funds, McCain may only end up with $5 million to spend between now and his official nomination in September if the FEC doesn’t allow him to withdraw from the public financing system he willingly entered into months ago.

The weakness of the Times story helped McCain in the short term — he raised money, his conservative detractors turned their fire on the Times, and even testimonials from liberal Democrats and Public Citizen poured in on his behalf. But he must explain how and why he is clean on the influence of lobbying on his public service, and why he is not a hypocrite for trying to wiggle out of a public financing system he led the charge to create. For practical purposes McCain must convince donors to open their checkbooks and assure them there will be no more shoes to drop. Finally, he must convince the FEC to let him withdraw from the $5 million limit that will surely defeat his chances against any Democratic nominee, and avoid violation of the rules, which brings fines and up to five years in prison.

McCain is a hero with many liabilities. But his integrity is his best asset and he cannot win without it. He can answer questions about Iraq until the cows come home, but if he must spend the next seven months answering questions about his honesty he is sure to lose.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.