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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)