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Remembering John McCain’s Campaign Reform Legacy

In today’s world, the victory of McCain-Feingold seems almost unfathomable.

July 25, 2017

The sad news that John McCain has been stricken with brain cancer has inspired a torrent of tributes. But few of these well-deserved appreciations have lavished much attention on McCain’s signature legislative achievement — the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, better known as McCain-Feingold, after the Arizona senator and his Democratic partner, Russ Feingold.

The neglect is partly understandable since McCain-Feingold, while never repealed, lies in tatters. Originally envisioned as a way to eliminate unregulated “soft money” flowing through the political parties, McCain-Feingold now seems quaint in this anything-goes era defined by Citizens United.

But glossing over McCain-Feingold does a disservice to the former POW’s Senate legacy. With 15 years hindsight, the victory of McCain and his allies seems almost unfathomable.

The word “Bipartisan” in the bill’s title was more than a rococo decoration. McCain-Feingold made its way through a Republican House under Speaker Denny Hastert and a closely divided Senate to be signed into law by a Republican president, George W. Bush on March 27, 2002. In fact, the only thing that seems predictable in a contemporary context was the ferocious opposition of Mitch McConnell, who, after failing to block final passage of the legislation, immediately raced into federal court to file suit.

Before McCain-Feingold, good government orthodoxy held that it required a firestorm like Watergate to inspire legislators to pass campaign reform. But the relevant scandal, in this case, dated back to 1995 when Bill Clinton pioneered the use of soft money funneled through the Democratic National Committee to aid in his reelection. What added drama to the Clinton campaign finance story was that the president rewarded favored big-ticket donors with Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers and White House coffees.  

Despite Bob Dole bellowing, “Where’s the outrage?” in the waning days of the 1996 campaign and a blue-ribbon Senate investigation in 1997, the furor over soft money was soon upstaged by a presidential sex scandal. As the public lost interest in colorful figures like Little Rock restaurateur Charlie Trie (who funneled $600,000 in improper contributions to the DNC), hopes for campaign reform legislation drooped lower than Newt Gingrich’s approval ratings.

That should have been the end of it — except a war hero named John McCain decided to embark on a long-shot crusade for the 2000 Republican nomination.  

The 2000 campaign now seems a throwback to an Age of Innocence. The Cold War was over, terrorism experts were the only people who worried about Osama bin Laden, the federal budget was balanced and the economy was healthy. Wearied of the nonstop Clinton scandals, voters in the New Hampshire primary rallied to McCain’s attacks on “the special interests” and “big money” in politics.

After McCain whomped George W. Bush by more than 40,000 votes in New Hampshire, the Texas governor was on the ropes heading into the crucial South Carolina primary. But in a feat of prestidigitation, Karen Hughes managed to rebrand Bush as a “reformer with results,” arguing on skimpy evidence that the deep-pocketed presidential son was a more effective foe of big-money politics than McCain.

Even though he lost the 2000 nomination, McCain returned to the Senate with a higher level of national prestige than anyone in Congress save Ted Kennedy. Despite skepticism from his own party, McCain (with Feingold’s aid) steered the reform bill through the Senate by a clear-cut 59-to-41 vote in the spring of 2001. But the GOP House proved a tougher sell, requiring a rare parliamentary gambit to get the legislation out of committee in early 2002. The final catalyst for House passage was the Enron scandal—and the lavish style with which the bankrupt Texas energy company had bankrolled legislators in both parties.

As a president who craved large donations for his 2004 reelection race, Bush might have been tempted to veto McCain-Feingold. But he was cornered by his exaggerated 2000 claims to be a “reformer with results.” Bush was so unenthusiastic about the legislation that he dispensed with the traditional White House Rose Garden signing ceremony as he instead set off on a two-day fund-raising trip for congressional Republicans. As McCain joked at the time, the president had never promised him a rose garden.

The 2004 presidential campaign — the first one conducted under the provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — serves as a reminder of how comparatively clean politics used to be. John Kerry only won the Democratic presidential nomination because the Federal Election Commission allowed him to borrow $5 million (chump change in contemporary politics) against the Boston town house that he owned jointly with his wealthy wife, Teresa Heinz. And both Bush and Kerry accepted public funding for the general election (limiting themselves to $75 million each), which meant that they were required to refrain from fund-raising for the home stretch.

McCain-Feingold, for all the hopes that its passage raised for campaign reformers, always had a serious flaw. By clamping down on soft money donations to political parties, the legislation encouraged outside groups to flourish after the Citizens United decision, undermining political accountability. It is possible that a stronger GOP (not dependent on Super PACs for the bulk of the party’s funding) might have shown more gumption in the face of an untamed outsider like Donald Trump.

As his legislative handiwork withered, McCain’s attention shifted from campaign reform. But as the 2008 Republican nominee, McCain stuck to his principles and accepted public financing for the fall campaign. Barack Obama — for all his lip service to the cause of reform — became the first candidate to spurn public financing and the restrictions that went with it.

The tale of McCain-Feingold does not offer a simple moral to guide campaign reformers today. The political mood of the 2000 campaign (when Bill Bradley was also running as a reformer on the Democratic side) cannot be easily replicated. McCain’s charisma played a major role — both as a war hero and as a sadder-but-wiser politician who had sullied his honor in the Keating Five scandal in the 1980s. But as McCain’s career winds down, it is worth pausing to marvel at what he accomplished 15 years ago.

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

(Photo: AP)