At Tuesday's town hall-style presidential debate at Tennessee's Belmont University, an audience member named Theresa Finch asked the candidates a question that has no doubt been weighing on the minds of many Americans: "How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got us into this global economic crisis?" When it came time for McCain to respond, he said, "I can see why you feel that cynicism and mistrust, because the system in Washington is broken. And I have been a consistent reformer." He said he had a clear record of taking on special interests and reaching across the aisle to get things done in Washington. "So let's look at our records as well as our rhetoric," he said. "That's really part of your mistrust here. And now I suggest that maybe you go to some of these organizations that are the watchdogs of what we do, like the Citizens Against Government Waste or the National Taxpayers Union or these other organizations that watch us all the time."
It's not surprising that McCain directed Finch to Citizens Against Government Waste or the National Taxpayers Union. Both anti-spending organizations are ideologically aligned with the Arizona Senator and have ties to his presidential campaign. But if Finch were to take McCain's advice and visit the NTU's web site to look up its most recent congressional scorecard, she would find "N/A" next to the candidate's name, for he didn't vote on enough bills in the 110th Congress to qualify for a rating. (Obama receives an F. In past years, McCain's NTU rating has ranged from B-minus to A.)
CAGW, however, gives McCain its highest marks—100 percent—in its latest report [PDF], though Finch and other voters may want to consider the source before placing stock in the nonprofit's congressional scorecard. CAGW was one of five nonprofits accused by Senate investigators of "laundering payments and then disbursing funds" at the direction of Jack Abramoff. Earlier this year the Washington Post reported that CAGW was actively helping McCain.
When McCain came under fire last winter for supporting a $40 billion tanker deal that critics said would export thousands of jobs overseas, "McCain's advisers wanted to strike back against key Democratic critics," according to the Post. "But they did not mount an expensive advertising campaign to defend the candidate's position." Instead, they called CAGW, which "partnered with Northrop and one of its consultants to produce a vitriolic advertising campaign defending the tanker deal."
McCain's close friend Orson Swindle, who was the senator's cellmate in the "Hanoi Hilton," has served on the group's board. And CAGW's political arm has donated $11,000 to McCain's campaign and political action committee since 2004—an amount that far surpasses its contributions to any other candidate. Just a day before McCain cited CAGW as one of the go-to watchdogs, the group's political action committee began running ads in support of McCain in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. The 30-second spot, dubbed "Taxpayer Hero," states: "In 25 years, McCain never requested a single pork barrel spending project. Not a dime in special interest earmarks. Barack Obama? $740 million in special interest earmarks in just 3 years. There's nothing Washington's tax-and-spend politicians fear more than John McCain in the White House."
The National Taxpayers Union is also less than an impartial source on McCain. Several of its top honchos have donated generously to McCain's campaign. And one of its board members, Edward Failor Jr., is a political operative who worked for McCain's campaign in Iowa. Failor also serves on the board of the newly formed independent expenditure group, American Issues Project, which has spent millions on an ad campaign attacking Barack Obama for his connection to 1960s radical William Ayers. On Wednesday, the group announced a million dollar ad buy for a TV spot, which will run on Fox and CNN, blaming Democrats for the financial meltdown and for protecting the interests of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "Who should you trust on the economy?" the ad asks.
This was precisely what Theresa Finch was wondering on Tuesday night. And CAGW and NTU are not the best places to go for answers.