McCain keeps bad company

On the eve of his first general-election debate against Barack Obama, and just 40 days from Election Day, will John McCain fire his campaign manager? After all, Rick Davis has made a liar out of him, on the heels of a dismal week when almost everyone else called McCain a liar.

It was apparently McCain’s eagerness to tamp down initial reports about Davis having earned $500,000 from Freddie Mac that led to the revelation about his firm actually earning $15,000 per month from the mortgage company right up through last month. Just days ago, McCain told CNBC and The New York Times that Davis hadn’t been paid by Freddie Mac in years, adding, “I’ll be glad to have his record examined by anybody who wants to look at it.”

According to the Times, that did it. McCain’s righteous assertions, along with television commercials he has run tying Barack Obama (erroneously) to Franklin Raines, former head of Fannie Mae, and to Jim Johnson, another former head of Fannie Mae, led to retaliation by sources knowledgeable about Davis’s deal. Both the ads and McCain’s defense of Davis, the paper reported, “riled current and former officials of the two companies and provoked them to volunteer rebuttals.”

According to reports, it was Davis who requested the $15,000 per month payments to his firm, following a five-year period in which he was directly paid $30,000 a month from Freddie Mac as president of the Homeowners Alliance, which was later dissolved. Though Davis took leave from his company to run McCain’s campaign, and therefore hasn’t earned a salary there since the end of 2006, no one else at Davis Manafort has done anything for Freddie Mac. Even Davis reportedly did nothing for the money, save for an appearance in October of 2006, and was clearly paid for his closeness to McCain. While on the campaign payroll, Davis remains an equity holder in his firm.

While it is true Freddie Mac has seen no return on its investment in Davis — and McCain co-sponsored legislation to regulate Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — the arrangement raises the larger question about how McCain operates. Did McCain ever sit Davis down and tell him that any pay-for-access arrangements wouldn’t be tolerated? Or did Davis know they would be?

McCain is not the bewildered father who suddenly learned his teenager was nipping in the liquor cabinet — or, like Sarah Palin, the mother who discovered her teenage daughter was pregnant. He is running as the scourge of special interests. For all his talk about the evils of lobbying, lobbyists are key members of his team. In August, Candidate “We Are All Georgians” McCain took up the cause of the republic when Russia invaded while knowing full well that sooner or later we would all learn Randy Scheunemann advised McCain on the region while earning hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for Georgia as well. In between McCain’s two presidential runs, Davis represented clients who needed McCain’s help in the Senate and made millions doing it. But he also had a hand in expensive contracts that helped McCain’s 2007 presidential campaign go broke, including a Web services company Davis had a stake in that was paid $1 million over a period of months.

And therefore, while the McCain team sells a candidate of reform, a crusade against corruption, a cause greater than self-interest, the group is held to a separate standard by its leader. McCain clearly looks the other way while saving his ire for the “Me first, country second” crowd.

Last week McCain said if he were president he would fire Chris Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, for having betrayed the public trust. Perhaps then McCain would fire Davis, unless of course Davis didn’t betray his trust.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.