McCain Graciously Tells Off Obama:--

The Weekly Standard reprints excerpts from an amazing letter that John McCain sent to Barack Obama. Here is the Scrapbook note and the McCain letter (subscription required):

Democratic senators Harry Reid and Barack Obama tried to pull a fast one on John McCain and got hit with the literary equivalent of a B-52 strike. McCain's been working on a bipartisan lobbying reform bill. Obama, Reid's designee on reform, told McCain he wasn't a partisan hit man and wanted to help out. So, at McCain's invitation, Obama attended a meeting on the bill and let McCain know the next day that he appreciated working together. But that night Obama's office, evidently at Reid's request, emailed, and released to the press, a letter to McCain, then en route to Germany, mourning Wash-ington's "culture of corruption," and lamenting that a bipartisan reform wouldn't be "effective"; only the Democratic leadership's bill, which has no Republican cosponsors, "represents a significant step in addressing many of the worst aspects of corruption."

McCain arrived back in his office on February 6 and responded with his own letter, also released to the press:

I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere. . . . Thank you for disabusing me of such notions with your letter. . . . I'm embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. . . . But I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party's effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman Senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness.

I tend to like Barack Obama (whom I voted for) better than I like John McCain (with the huge exception of the Iraq War), but my impression of McCain just rose a few notches. Assuming that the background story is accurate [and it might not be, see update below], I really like the tone of McCain's response, essentially apologizing for thinking that Obama was a sincere, decent man, rather than a typical politician. Perhaps Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, has been hanging around the senior senator from Illinois too much.

UPDATE: As a commenter points out below, Senator Obama's website posted the entire exchange of letters. Obama in essence argues that he didn't change his position, so he doesn't know what McCain is talking about. Accordingly, whether McCain's arch, mock gracious tone is justified turns on whether McCain's account of their cooperation--or Obama's--is the correct one.

2D UPDATE: Among the more interesting comments are two that point in opposite directions. One comment points to an interesting analysis by Mark Schmitt and Bob Bauer of one reason for McCain's pique--that McCain effectively "owns bipartisanship" and treats any attempt to work around him (even by going through the normal committee process) as a personal affront.

Another comment claims: "There was a third party in the room to confirm whose version of events was correct — Sen Joe Lieberman was on the Don Imus program the next day. [Senator Susan Collins was also present.--JL] Imus pressed him to clear up the diverging accounts and his response was Obama could have been more clear in his intitial discussions with McCain." Unfortunately, I was unable to confirm this acoount because the Imus transcript appears not to be online; nor does it appear to be on Lexis or Westlaw. I did find this quote from Senator Lieberman's appearance that shows him also tweaking McCain a bit: "I've been working with John to make him more assertive and plainspoken and I think it worked."

Kovarsky (mail):
I remember seeing this on hardball the day it happened, and McCain was hardly contrite (he didn't "take it back"), he was conciliatory and said that he had spoken to Obama and that they had worked everything out.

I would agree with the assessment of McCain except I would have held his response in much higher regard if the letter had not been immediately released to the press. It comes off a little bit as a stand-up at the homecoming dance.
2.19.2006 2:08am
boonelsj (mail):
"Assuming that the background story is accurate..."

If nothing else I think you can bet there's no way in hell Obama will ever meet with McCain again without taking a tape recorder with him.
2.19.2006 2:12am
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Reminds me a little of when Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean a couple of years ago and Joe Lieberman got all huffy, because he hadn't received a call to warm him (Gore did call, apparently, but Lieberman's office didn't return the call).

Lieberman went on about how he didn't have anything to say about Al Gore's loyalty... I don't know, I guess I tend to like the more straight-forward approach myself. With this kind of finessed indignance, it's hard to tell whether it's just a political maneuver. In the end, I doubt Obama, or Gore for that matter, deserved the disrespect.
2.19.2006 2:30am
dk35 (mail):
So are you saying that the Weekly Standard didn't bother to print the letter Obama sent to McCain after their initial meeting? Or Obama's response to McCain's letter? I'm amazed. I mean, one would think a respected periodical like the Weekly Standard would strive to present a balanced take on the story. My confidence in the media has now been shattered!

Obama has reprinted the entire exchange on his website here.
2.19.2006 2:38am
Gil (mail) (www):
I don't see anything gracious about McCain's letter.

He had his feelings hurt, got pissed off, and wrote a snotty, sarcastic, 7th-grade-level 'I apologize for believing a liar like you' letter for release to the press.

I think that they're both jerks whose ambitions threaten our liberties.
2.19.2006 2:39am
James Lindgren (mail):

I, of course, meant that the letter was mock gracious, not genuinely so. But I confess that I did enjoy the arch tone of it. Yet whether the tone is justified turns on whether the background story is true, which Obama essentially argues it's not.
2.19.2006 3:07am
What went on in their meeting? And what was the content of McCain's plan? Maybe Obama decided McCain's plan wasn't that useful. Maybe he was right.

Personally, I'd rather have a less-good, bipartisan plan go through than a better plan railroaded down one side's throat, but if McCain's plan sucks (recall the success of his last effort), maybe Obama was right to bail.
2.19.2006 3:36am
CrazyTrain (mail):
Lindgren admires this letter because it paints Obama as a "typical politician." But McCain's theatrics in releasing this letter to the press immediately shows McCain to be a down to earth, non-politico. LMAO. I also like Jim's "I voted for Obama" line (who wouldn't given that he was running against a complete lunatic). I like it better when Jim quotes PowerLine verbatim -- their cutting edge legal analysis is just the type a professor of law at Northwestern should be brushing up on.
2.19.2006 3:57am
Pio (mail):
While I'm not a particular fan of Barack Obama, this letter is less indicative of Obama's flaws than it is of McCain's, namely his overwhelming arrogance and strutting rightousness. If you read Obama's original letter, you realize that it really isn't at all confrontational - it merely signals that Obama &co. would prefer their bill to the bipartisan version, and would prefer action through the comittees. McCain, as is typical of him, takes this as a personal affront and is offended that anyone would dare disagree with him, automatically assuming some sinister ulterior motive. He pulls this act all the time, especially with those who oppose his terrible campaign-finance "reforms".
2.19.2006 4:49am
James Lindgren (mail):

If you read the story linked, Obama released his letter to the press first; then McCain released his. Of course, the tones of the letters are different.

Obama lives in our neighborhood, and my wife and I have supported him for some time, initially because in the IL legislature, he proposed a bill that when passed removed us from having to continue to pay into the state's health insurance system for duplicate coverage that ended up as inferior coverage (it involved having to pay for health insurance from two different employers). I'm a registered Democrat, I've donated money only to Democrats (including donations to state candidates that don't show up on, and I tend to vote Democratic on the local level, but not recently at the Presidential level. As I said, I like Obama, except on the war (which is an important exception).
2.19.2006 4:56am
James Lindgren (mail):

You might be right. McCain is pretty volatile.
2.19.2006 4:58am
Kieran Jadiker-Smith (mail):
As a hawkish centrist (I'm a registered Democrat who voted for Bush in 2004) I really want to like McCain, but this whole exchange underscores a major concern I have about him, which is his general difficulty playing well with others. Given how much scorched earth he leaves in his wake, I wonder if anyone in Congress -- Republican or Democrat -- would have a vested interest in the success of a McCain Administration. And if not, does that mean he's doomed to being an ineffective president from the start?
2.19.2006 6:23am
argle (mail) (www):
I really like the tone of McCain's response, essentially apologizing for thinking that Obama was a sincere, decent man, rather than a typical politician.

Oh, get a grip Jim. If you want to see what a real political analysis of this little fight looks like, go read Mark Schmitt. It's McCain's position/image as a bipartisan broker that was put at risk here, and that's why he's bitching.
2.19.2006 7:26am
George Gregg (mail):
As an Arizona Republican and a McCain supporter, I still have to say that McCain's behavior on this point wasn't very mature or senatorial.

Basically, McCain wanted to avoid a committee process on this legislation, so he lobbied among his other senators to do that. This would:

1. Allow him to control the language and tempo of the legislation, and

2. Enable him to retain "ownership" over the process, so his political credibility as a reformer would be further burnished. Hey, he's a politician running for President, after all.

So they had a meeting where a lot was discussed. McCain left the meeting thinking he'd sewed it up. Obama left the mmeeting thinking there was no way he'd let McCain put this in his pocket.

When McCain found out about it via Obama's first letter (which, itself was a couresty), he wrote what could only be described as an unsenatorial letter basically crassly insulting Obama. Obama, on the other hand, kept his cool and responded like a US Senator. Just so there was openness on the whole issue, Obama posted all three letters on his website, whereas McCain only posted his.

As I say, I'm a lifelong Republican, registered to vote in Arizona, and generally like McCain. But this exchange is not complimentary to him at all.
2.19.2006 8:14am
Eric Muller (www):
Jim, isn't a likely explanation of McCain's quite extraordinary letter that he and others see Obama as a future force to be reckoned with, maybe even an eventual Presidential candidate, and that this is the first salvo in an effort to define Obama from the get-go as a phony?
2.19.2006 8:18am
Frank Drackmann (mail):
I thought Obama was hiding in pakistan or Iran...figures that McCain is writing letters to him.
2.19.2006 8:52am
George Gregg (mail):

Yes, I've heard that posited.

Another possible reason is that McCain is honing his Republican cred in front of the Presidential race by insulting Obama.

Another possibility is that McCain is just pretty volatile at times. Perhaps he just had a bad day of poor judgment, dyspepsia, whatever.

Maybe some combination of these.
2.19.2006 8:55am
Neal R. (mail):
You liked the tone of the McCain letter? Yes, that's just what we need in American politics: more sarcasm, derision, and impugning of personal motives.
2.19.2006 9:26am
LeeKane (mail):
Instead of working "together" Obama decided to go public with a critique, essentially withdrawing from (McCain's) bipartisan effort. I don't see how McCain can be faulted for responding in public. (Should it be a one sided debate with Obama releasing letters to McCain to the press and McCain sending them just to Obama?) Did McCain go over the top? Perhaps, but let's say I invite you onto my committee to redesign the Volokh Conspiracy website, you agree and we have a meeting to hammer out the details--next thing I know a letter from you is plastered all over the Web saying that our redesign plans suck and only yours will work. I think I'd feel a bit arch at that moment...
2.19.2006 9:33am
Noah Klein (mail):

The issue was not the content of the bill, but the delay in passing meaningful lobbying reform. The Congress ended last year saying that lobbying reform would be their first priority, yet McCain wants to have a bipartisan group develop legislation. He says that it will only take a month, but we all know that bipartisan deals are hard to come by and take a long time to work out. Obama was not saying a bipartisan bill was bad, but that the Senate should move quickly (something they aren't known for doing) and pass the bill that was already written rather than wait for a new bill to be developed. Could Obama be wrong? yes. Does that necessitate the invective that is in the McCain letter? Most certainly not.

2.19.2006 9:49am
The fallacy lies in assuming that bipartisan = apolitical. This is particularly silly when the definition of "bipartisan" is 55 Republicans + Joe Lieberman.

No one claims that the Democrats are 100% clean, but the fact is, the scandals which have broken of late (Duke Cunningham, Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay), have been Republican scandals, not surprising given that they hold the wheels of power. Republicans, by insisting on a bipartisan solution, want to cast the whole thing as a bipartisan problem, in the hopes they won't be punished at the voting booth as long as people believe both parties are to blame.

There is nothing wrong with this Republican strategy, but it is exactly that, a strategy. There is no real moral high ground for them to claim.

I also echo the point that this letter was not leaked, it was proudly posted by McCain on his website. It may be an enjoyable read from a voyeuristic standpoint, but it's still just politics.

I would also note that McCain chaired the Jack Abramoff hearings, but announced ahead of time that he would not be looking into who the recipients were of Abramoff's unlawful bribes. Now, does that sound like someone who wants to clean up Congress, or someone who wants to cover for Republicans?
2.19.2006 10:34am
McCain and Obama both appeared before the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday, February 8th, and sought to bring this episode to the end. They joined together for a photo op, and both testified that they were working together and had put this behind them. They even jokingly referred to each other as "pen pals."

So, I'm inclined to follow their mutual lead and drop the whole thing.
2.19.2006 10:35am
Oh, and shame on the Weekly Standard for trying to revive this issue with an incomplete story dated two weeks after McCain's letter, and 12 days after McCain and Obama subsequently put it to rest.
2.19.2006 10:48am
There was a third party in the room to confirm whose version of events was correct -- Sen Joe Lieberman was on the Don Imus program the next day. Imus pressed him to clear up the diverging accounts and his response was Obama could have been more clear in his intitial discussions with McCain.
2.19.2006 10:53am
Brett Bellmore (mail):
I'm so relieved to hear that they're not going to let their egos get in the way of the important task of destroying the 1st Amendment. Incumbants everywhere will sleep better now.
2.19.2006 12:45pm
Columbia Undergrad (mail):
I don't see how McCain actually expected the Democrats to take an issue that they are trying to push against the Republicans, and let it become one of McCain's feel-good bipartisan acts. How McCain didn't see this coming is absurd, and to me it just seems that hes pissed off he doesn't have another pretty little bipartisan bill that will look good on his campaign resume.
2.19.2006 12:54pm
LeeKane (mail):
I agree it's good to move on. Nevertheless, Obama started the practice of discussion by public letter. (Wannna bet he doesn't do that again?) That's the issue here, right? Not whose bill is better but the nature of the negotiations: Public flame wars or a cooperative spirit...? After Obama started the flame war, McCain merely put his side out there in a way that perhaps would make Jonathan Swift proud or at least not ashamed...
2.19.2006 12:58pm

Something apparently happened between your first period and the capital letter "N".
2.19.2006 2:24pm
scouser (mail):
Jim - maybe in another post you can provide some reasons the rest of us should like Obama. He's allegedly an appealing politician to so many but the only consistent support for that proposition is young, telegenic, and black. What about issues broader than you've addressed above? All I can think of is that no good can ever come out of Illinois much less Cook County (and that's on both sides of the aisle). I'd be genuinely interested in seeing what an intelligent, long term supporter has to say about him.
2.19.2006 3:08pm

I'm not sure I fit your entire description, but I do have a slightly more concrete impression of why Obama appeals to many people. In particular, my sense is that while a state legislator, he was generally well-regarded on both sides of the aisle. Certainly, he had much broader appeal in Illinois--including downstate--than many initially predicted.

In part that is because he apparently does have a reputation for seeking, where possible, to work out practical, win-win compromises. The story to that effect I have heard most often involves a bill to require the police to videotape homicide interrogations and confessions. As the story goes, such a bill had failed before, but he went to the police and wary lawmakers and sold them on the idea that such a bill, if done right, could actually help police get convictions in homicide cases.

I also have the impression that he is viewed as someone who can be unusually and productively honest about sensitive issues. Probably the most famous such instance would be his Keynote line about "the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." I think the basic idea here is the opposite side of the coin above: part of being able to work toward compromise is the ability to identify fault wherever it may lie.

Finally, my sense is that in Illinois, he is viewed as being in the mold of the late Paul Simon (who was also an early supporter of Obama). So, insofar as you might have an impression of why people liked Paul Simon, some of those same impressions may apply.
2.19.2006 3:39pm
Don Imus:
Here's a link to the video of the Lieberman appearance on Imus in the Morning:
2.19.2006 4:06pm
Dustin R. Ridgeway (mail):
Count me among those who felt that Obama's reply was infinite;y more stylish and classy than McCain's immature screed.
2.20.2006 2:56am
Grand CRU (mail):
I am saddened that I will not get to see a McCain-Obama ticket in 2008.
2.20.2006 6:39am
Mr Diablo:
I wasn't aware that we were still talking about this and figured that some computer error or glitch had taken a two-week old story or posting and had tried to pass it off as news.

I don't understand how someone with Prof. Lindgren's credentials could find anything meritous in McCain's letter. It's snippy and a pure political stunt (the language itself, when he says something like how he sees Obama as just another politician speaks volumes about how calculated this was). It was an effort to score points and Sen. Obama handled it with class and dignity.

Sure, if you believe a completely ridiculous backstory in the Weekly Standard that is so one-sided as to render it drivel...sorry, that was redundant.

I wonder if it is part of McCain's new effort to swing to the right, this attempt at dressing-down Obama. He used to save his "you're a typical politican" attack line for members of his own party. I guess we will find out when McCain casts his vote on the marriage amendment next month, just how hard he is trying to court conservatives.
2.20.2006 1:59pm