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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The neglect is partly under­stand­able since McCain-Fein­gold, while never repealed, lies in tatters.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)