Sen. John McCain has all the credentials that should make defense contractors swoon.
And yet donations from defense industry employees and their spouses, tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics, show that the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting is only $4,000 ahead of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee who has never served in the military or on a Senate defense committee.
McCain and Obama have gathered $300,034 and $296,673, respectively, from defense contractors. That’s not much money in the grand scheme of these historically expensive campaigns, noted John Isaacs, director of the Council for a Livable World, who added that defense contractors will use the donations to build ties to the candidates.
But the figures are all the more striking given the two candidates’ divergent views on the Iraq war. McCain would continue the battle, which has been a major funding source for the industry. Obama would seek to begin the war’s closing chapter, which would squeeze off the industry’s money supply.
Interviews with industry experts suggest the parity in giving has a lot more to do with worries about an often adversarial McCain, a war hero and the leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, than with warm feelings for Obama.
In an address last fall to the Hudson Institute, the Arizona senator said the nation needs more troops to fight a global counterinsurgency.
To pay for the troops and their equipment, he proposed cutting “wasteful federal spending, including unnecessary Pentagon programs and an often dysfunctional procurement system.” He has also pledged to overhaul programs such as the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, which will cost billions of dollars more than the service initially predicted.
That kind of tough-on-industry rhetoric doesn’t inspire the military industrial complex to start writing checks.
“If you take one thing at a time, I don’t believe that creates a problem. But if you add it all together, it will create a perception that he is not as supportive of the industry,” said a defense executive. “What happens then is that those who are not favorably disposed to the defense industry will see that as an opportunity to be more critical, be more negative toward the industry, because they think that’s what the president wants to see.”
McCain’s campaign is spinning the parity in fundraising with Obama as a positive, saying that McCain is well aware that his positions on defense reform haven’t won him friends with defense contractors in Washington.
“That’s part of John McCain’s appeal. He’s willing to do things that are not in his political interest, no matter the consequences,” said campaign spokesman Brian Rogers. “There’s one guy in the race that has a real record of doing that. That’s John McCain.”
Though his campaign points to his involvement in the Air Force tanker competition as an example of his willingness to fight for causes that don’t benefit him politically, the issue is a little more complicated. As much as the tanker program showed him to be a budget hawk, it has also been an example of his lobbying world connections.
In 2004, McCain and his staff helped uncover a mammoth government procurement scandal, derailing Boeing’s bid to lease tankers to the Air Force.
Early this year, the Air Force rebid the tanker program, awarding a contract worth up to $40 billion to Northrop Grumman and its key partner, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., over Boeing.
Boeing had been the front-runner, but McCain helped push the Pentagon to include a challenger and prevent a sole-source contract to Boeing. Months after that assistance, his then-finance chairman Tom Loeffler signed on to lobby for EADS.
Boeing has since launched a bitter battle to win back the contract, and EADS is defendng its right to make planes on American turf.
Neither Obama nor New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was very involved in the decision, but they responded to the tanker decision with populist statements during the week of the Ohio primary.
The difference in the candidates’ positions on the tanker program appears to have had an impact on dollars for their campaigns.
Boeing employees came through with more than $50,000 in campaign donations for both Obama and Clinton. Even though Boeing has a significant presence in Arizona — it makes Longbow Apache helicopters for the Army there — Boeing backers gave McCain less than $15,000.
Boeing itself has not contributed to any candidate, but employees are free to donate to whomever they choose, said a Boeing spokesman.
On the flip side, EADS gave far more to McCain proportionally, providing $15,700 to his campaign, while giving $2,650 to Obama and just $2,300 to Clinton.
Northrop Grumman and its employees, however, did not follow suit. They donated $29,745 to McCain’s campaign, $50,300 to Clinton and $37,480 to Obama.
Obama’s donations follow the pattern that has made his fundraising machine so formidable: His top-dollar donations from visible corporate executives are bolstered by smaller donations from scores of engineers.
But one defense lobbyist who believes Obama will be elected president said the presumptive nominee will begin attracting a lot more attention from industry donors who seek access.
That’s not a universally shared opinion, though.
Asked which candidate is best for the defense industry, several defense lobbyists pointed to his liberal tendencies as a sign that he’d likely cut funding for their pet programs.
“Anybody but Obama,” one of the lobbyists said.
The industry’s favorite candidate was Clinton, who just left the race. Before her departure, she received $368,668 in presidential campaign donations from defense company employees giving more than $200.
Although there is a perception that access follows donations, one defense lobbyist said that in most cases donations follow positive moves by the politicians. That would be the case with Clinton. Her success with the defense community comes from her willingness to listen to their issues, say defense executives.
Clinton sought a seat on the Armed Services Committee when she arrived in the Senate, which was an asset in military-heavy New York — home to West Point, Fort Drum and a Lockheed Martin manufacturing facility in Owego near the Pennsylvania border.
Donations to Clinton could still serve the contractors well as she gets back to work on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where she’ll be a key, if not enhanced, player.