Each White House Candidate Offers Much in the Way of Positives

Posted March 21, 2008 at 2:40pm

Last week, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) made a series of comments that reflected positively on his close associations with all three presidential candidates.

[IMGCAP(1)]He mentioned the fact that the bills that represent the proudest and biggest accomplishments of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — campaign finance reform and ethics and lobbying reform, respectively — had one thing in common: their co-sponsor (namely, Feingold).

Of course, he has very strong views on policy issues and has his own preferences. But his observations were about people, not policy.

No one in the legislative arena had deeper professional relationships with all three than Feingold. I have also had the privilege over the years of getting to know and work with McCain, Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). And I share Feingold’s judgment.

I will start with McCain, with whom I began a dialogue in the mid-1990s on many reform issues. That dialogue intensified as I came to him with ideas from a working group that tried to craft practical solutions to specific problems in the campaign finance arena. There were some uncomfortable moments when I would suggest to McCain that the initial bill, known even then as McCain-Feingold, would not work for practical political reasons and needed significant change. Carrying that kind of message is a bit like telling a proud parent that his firstborn has serious blemishes.

But it became clear from the outset of our conversations that McCain was interested in enacting a law that would work and pass muster with the Supreme Court, not simply in having an issue that would bring him great political acclaim or in going down in flames to protect a pure position. He knew the issues, knew where to draw the line and where to make adjustments. It has been a privilege to interact with him over the years and see him overcome long odds to make it happen.

I also saw a personal side at odds with his public image as a temperamental diva who flies off the handle and rips the bark off people who cross him or irritate him. I was alone with McCain in his office when word came that a mutual friend had died of cancer at age 47.

David Ifshin had been a radical student leader in the 1960s who actually broadcast over Radio Hanoi when McCain was in prison camp there. But years later, the two forged a deep friendship by finding common ground. Through the ordeal of Ifshin’s illness, at his death and in the aftermath, McCain was there for him and his family, not just through an occasional call. Bloomberg’s Ed Chen reported recently that in the hottest moment in the campaign earlier this year, when the nomination was on the line, McCain took time out to make a video to send to a memorial for Ifshin. I wouldn’t want McCain yelling at me — but there are few people I have met in public life or elsewhere whom I would rather have as a friend in time of need.

I met Clinton in the late 1970s, when Bill Clinton was the liaison with the Democratic Party for the 1978 midterm elections. In addition, my wife was a law school classmate of both Clintons. I got to know her better in the 1990s via the Renaissance Weekends. Her very best friend, the late (and great) Diane Blair, was a political scientist and friend of mine. During her years as first lady, I would meet with Clinton periodically for wide-ranging and candid conversations about politics and policy. I talked to her at length about the Senate, including providing her a reading list, after she won her seat. I discussed the Senate and the need for Congressional reform with her several times during her first term.

The Hillary Clinton I know and have spent time with did not in any way fit the stereotype her political adversaries and many reporters set of her — the latter-day equivalent of Lady Macbeth. She does indeed have a tough side — but she is warm, witty, loyal to her friends, and good to her White House and Senate staff (who in turn are intensely loyal to her).

That warm side has actually astonished many of her GOP Senate colleagues, who believed the stereotypes. But this is about more than her personality. Clinton became a model Senator from her first days there, working hard, learning the politics of the body and the characteristics and foibles of her colleagues, building bridges and relationships across the board. She has become a savvy and accomplished politician on her own. She learned the Senate but also worked intensively to learn about key policy areas like national defense.

I met Obama soon after he came to the Senate. Conversations with him at that early point moved into a working relationship on ethics and lobbying reform. Despite the endorsements I had heard from longtime Chicago associates of his like Newton Minow and Ab Mikva, I went into my first meeting with him as a skeptic — OK, he gave a great speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, but Sean Penn also could give a great speech, and I wouldn’t want him elected to anything. I came away understanding fully why Minow and Mikva were so enthusiastic.

I have seen Obama up close enough to see the depth of his intellect, the breadth of his world view, the comfort level he has with himself and in his interaction with others, his eagerness to learn from others because, unlike many politicians I have encountered, he knows what he doesn’t know. Obama crafted as strong and innovative a Senate office and staff as I have seen. Working with him on reform, I saw a man who could work comfortably across party lines, could balance principle and pragmatism, could act simultaneously as a partisan advocate and a nonpartisan reformer and get the balance just right.

This past week has been one with a lot of negatives surrounding the presidential campaign and the candidates. For Obama, it has been the fallout from his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. For Clinton, it was the fallout from the release of her appointment calendars. For McCain it was the gaffe in the Middle East confusing Iran, Iraq, Sunnis and al-Qaida.

It is par for the course that we would start to focus on the candidates’ warts. Of course we should vet them thoroughly. But let’s also focus on the positive side. In the most recent presidential elections, we have had choices that reflected at best a contest where one of the choices left many Americans unenthusiastic or at worst looking into purchase of a one-way ticket to Australia. This time, we have three very different but all top-flight candidates for president, each of whom, putting their positions on issues and their ideologies to the side, has the capacity to be an exceptional leader of the country.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.