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How John McCain Nearly Made the GOP the Party of Campaign Finance Reform

At his best, the late senator was a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt and a singular figure in the drive to eliminate big money from politics

August 25, 2018

Through the haze of memory, I can see the John McCain of 2000 stand­ing on the porch of a porti­coed ante­bel­lum mansion in Beaufort, South Caro­lina, making a passion­ate plea for campaign reform. 

“We must get the govern­ment out of the hands of the special interests, the big-money people, and give it back to you,” the former Viet­nam POW declared to an ador­ing Repub­lican crowd. “There are 22,000 lobby­ists in Wash­ing­ton today, and they spent $1.4 billion — that’s ‘B’ for billion — last year lobby­ing. Anybody here feel repres­en­ted? Does anybody here think we need more money in polit­ics?”

It was just two days after McCain had dramat­ic­ally upen­ded Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hamp­shire GOP primary — and the reform-minded Arizona senator was now lead­ing in the South Caro­lina polls. Another primary victory for McCain would pave his way to the nomin­a­tion and recast the Repub­lic­ans (yes, the Repub­lic­ans) as the party most commit­ted to campaign finance reform. 

History, of course, had other ideas. 

In South Caro­lina, vicious whis­per­ing campaigns and scur­ril­ous leaf­lets placed on car wind­shields in church park­ing lots attacked McCain’s family and his post-Viet­nam mental stabil­ity. As McCain wrote in his 2002 auto­bi­o­graphy, Worth Fight­ing For, “There wasn’t a damn thing I could do about the subter­ranean assaults on my repu­ta­tion except to act in a way that contra­dicted their libel.”

Bush, right­fully fear­ing the nomin­a­tion was slip­ping away, also honored the power of McCain’s anim­at­ing issue by steal­ing it. Cynic­ally repack­aging himself as “A Reformer with Results,” the lavishly funded Bush claimed with a straight face, “I’m a reformer when it comes to how we fund our campaigns.” 

The result was almost fore­or­dained: Bush won South Caro­lina by a double-digit margin. And even though McCain briefly reboun­ded in the Michigan primary, the Arizona senator never recap­tured the momentum in the 2000 race, ending his first pres­id­en­tial campaign in early March.

It is import­ant to assess the McCain of that era without being distrac­ted by the uneven terrain of his later career. Watch­ing McCain the Genu­ine Maver­ick in the 2000 campaign, it was impossible to imagine that he would one day tap the unqual­i­fied Sarah Palin as his vice-pres­id­en­tial running mate in 2008 or revert to being an ortho­dox conser­vat­ive Repub­lican during much of Barack Obama’s pres­id­ency. 

McCain’s 2000 dedic­a­tion to campaign finance reform was rooted in the now partly forgot­ten fund-rais­ing scan­dals that marred Bill Clin­ton’s 1996 reelec­tion campaign. 

Frightened by Newt Gingrich’s takeover of the House in 1994, Clin­ton refused to abide by the stat­utory limits on indi­vidual campaign contri­bu­tions. Instead, exploit­ing the “soft-money loop­hole,” the pres­id­ent persuaded rich donors to make unreg­u­lated six-figure contri­bu­tions to the Demo­cratic National Commit­tee, which then used the money to buy TV ads promot­ing Clin­ton. Adding to the stench of scan­dal was that Clin­ton held more than 100 White House coffee klatches for likely donors with some of the high rollers rewar­ded with Lincoln Bedroom slee­p­overs. 

Work­ing in tandem with Wiscon­sin Demo­cratic Sen. Russ Fein­gold, McCain had been cham­pi­on­ing legis­la­tion to ban soft-money contri­bu­tions to polit­ical parties. Partly powered by McCain’s popular­ity, the McCain-Fein­gold bill passed in 2002. And, despite a lack of enthu­si­asm in the White House, Bush felt compelled by his South Caro­lina rein­ven­tion as a reformer to sign the legis­la­tion. 

In hind­sight, McCain-Fein­gold, for all its good inten­tions, weakened polit­ical parties, which may have contrib­uted to the rise of Trump. Some of its provi­sions almost imme­di­ately failed to pass consti­tu­tional muster, like a “million­aire’s amend­ment” that raised the contri­bu­tion limits for federal candid­ates opposed by wealthy self-funders. 

But the larger prob­lem was that without an effect­ive Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion, without support­ive rulings by the courts and without a polit­ical system will­ing to aban­don its big-money habits, a single piece of reform legis­la­tion would never be enough. Even before Citizens United, shad­owy right-wing groups in 2004 funded the vicious Swift Boat attack ads under­min­ing John Kerry’s Viet­nam War record. 

While McCain’s passion for campaign reform ebbed after his evan­es­cent legis­lat­ive triumph in 2002, he never completely aban­doned the cause. In 2008, Obama became the first pres­id­en­tial candid­ate since the post-Water­gate reforms to refuse public finan­cing for his fall campaign. McCain, even though he knew that he would be over­whelmed by the Obama fund-rais­ing machine, felt compelled out of prin­ciple to stay within the public finan­cing system. 

Yet in reflect­ing on McCain’s remark­able career, I keep coming back to the might-have-beens of 2000. Had he prevailed against Bush in South Caro­lina, McCain had a strong shot at defeat­ing the unin­spir­ing Al Gore in the 2000 campaign. That version of McCain was a genu­ine Teddy Roosevelt reformer anim­ated by the belief that “big-money interests” should not shape legis­lat­ive agen­das. It would be a far better Amer­ica today if a Pres­id­ent McCain, taking office in 2001, had mobil­ized a bipar­tisan coali­tion for last­ing campaign and other reforms in public life. 

In that — and in so many other ways — John McCain will be deeply missed as our polit­ical life grows meaner, smal­ler, and more corrup­ted by big money. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty)