Comment: The McCain Mutiny

On most issues, Republican legislators have presented a solid phalanx to give the
Bush administration whatever it wants. The exception is campaign finance
reform--and the chink in the Republican armor is Arizona Senator John McCain.
Should Democrats be cheered? The answer is a qualified yes. For starters, the
reform coalition is mostly McCain plus Democrats. The Democrats are thus
identified with an overdue set of popular reforms, while George W. Bush, who won
election on a tide of unlimited corporate money, is identified with business as
usual. The bad news is that the McCain-Feingold
bill keeps getting watered down, and it was less than revolutionary to begin
with. In the end, Bush will probably sign it, less because he was out strategized
and outvoted than because the bill won't make that much difference.

The
McCain-Feingold bill is necessary because of the collapse of the post-Watergate
system of reforms. This legislation, enacted in 1974, was intended to constrain
both individual giving and candidate outlays. But with the Buckley
v. Valeo
ruling in 1976, the Supreme Court virtually equated money with
speech, allowed rich individuals to donate unlimited funds to their own
campaigns, and permitted nominally independent front groups to pour unregulated
money into election treasuries. These so-called independent outlays can attack
candidates by name, and they have been used very effectively by conservative
interest groups like the National Rifle Association.

The system further
unraveled as campaigns began exploiting a well intentioned "party-building"
loophole contained in the 1974 law, as unregulated, or "soft," money. The law
permits unlimited donations to parties, even from entities such as corporations,
which are prohibited from giving money to candidates directly. But it took only a
few election cycles for the distinction between candidates and parties to blur.
Donations to parties, of course, help elect candidates.

At its heart, the
McCain-Feingold bill is about banning soft money. This is the single-worst abuse
in the current money-and-politics system, since it has allowed the return of the
million-dollar donor and has turned campaigning into a money chase for
contributors who are rich and, usually, conservative. The second-worst aspect of
the current system is the independent-outlay dodge. The current model of
McCain-Feingold contains a provision narrowing what nominally independent groups
can do to underwrite a candidacy within 60 days of an election.

But here there is a risk that the Supreme Court may hold that such a ban is an
unconstitutional limitation of free speech. If the Court (unwisely) were to
render such a ruling, soft money would just return in a new form, as
independent-expenditure money. Since conservative interest groups have a lot more
money to throw at politics than liberal ones, the whole effort to constrain money
would once again backfire on liberal reformers.

Even so, McCain-Feingold is
probably a risk worth taking, because it sets back the role of big money in
politics, at least for a time, and it raises the profile of the issue. The public
needs to understand that this is far more than a "process" or "good-government"
issue. How society's richest and most powerful interests are permitted to
undermine democracy by substituting a large check for a democratic mobilization
of voters has the most profound implications for substantive politics.

Reform
tends to have its own momentum. If a halfway decent version of McCain-Feingold
does ultimately pass Congress, the next big objective for reformers is true
public financing of elections. This is currently a long shot, but reform can
build on itself. Few thought Congress would take on the broadcasting industry,
but the Senate voted for a surprise floor amendment requiring broadcasters to
stop gouging democracy and to give candidates the cheapest available advertising
rate.

Big money, of course, will find some ways around the constraints of
McCain-Feingold, just as it found subterfuges around the 1974 reforms. The high
court may be an accomplice, just as it was in 1976. But if nothing else, the
McCain-Feingold reforms will slow down big money for a time. That Congress
evidently feels it has to take public concerns seriously is itself an
achievement. And the fact that some version of this bill will likely pass, even
though the Bush administration and the Senate Republican leadership would have
preferred nothing at all, is remarkable.

McCain's maverick streak is also redounding to the Democrats' advantage in the
battle for a serious patients-rights bill. President Bush has sided with the
insurance industry, while McCain has joined Ted Kennedy in sponsoring the latest
version of a more muscular bill. Plainly, George W. Bush cannot control the
senator from Arizona, and this may embolden other independent-minded Republican
senators.

On most issues, however, McCain remains a fairly ordinary conservative. Democrats
are getting no help from him on tax and budget issues. So it is no wiser for
Democrats to build their message, philosophy, or broad legislative strategy
around a presumed alliance with John McCain than it was to build their fiscal
strategy around the whims of Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. Like Greenspan, McCain
has his own interests and he remains at heart a partisan Republican. Still, it is
comforting that, just as the liberal Democratic majority has its cross to bear in
the form of the Democratic Leadership Council and the fiscally retrograde href="http://www.house.gov/apps/list/press/la07_john/bluedog/Greenspan012501.html">Blue
Dogs, George W. Bush has to live with McCain.

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