The Courting of John McCain

Can George W. Bush get John McCain's endorsement? That may turn out to be the most important political question of the spring. Bush isn't off to a good start: He's made a series of remarks antagonizing the McCain camp, even as both his and McCain's surrogates have been trying to bring the two sides together. But ever since the maverick Arizonan suspended his campaign, speculation has been rife that some kind of deal might be worked out around McCain's signature issue, campaign finance reform.

In theory, Bush and McCain are miles apart on the reform issue. Bush is on the record as favoring, at most, a ban on corporate and union soft money contributions, but insists on allowing such contributions from individuals--a huge loophole. McCain wants a complete ban on soft money.

But look a little closer at the two candidates' positions, and the outlines of a possible deal begin to take shape. While McCain has built up a vaunted reputation as a campaign finance reformer, the proverbial camel's nose is already under his tent. After the Senate killed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill in its most stripped-down version last fall, Nebraska Sena-tors Chuck Hagel (who was McCain's campaign co-chair) and Bob Kerrey came forward to offer a new bipartisan "compromise" approach.

Hagel calls for capping soft money donations at $60,000 a year, or $120,000 per election cycle. A wealthy execu-tive and her spouse could give up to $240,000. Their kids could also chip in another $120,000 each. Since the bill doesn't do anything to prevent state parties from raising and spending soft money to influence federal elections, whatever large donations were clipped by the Hagel bill could simply flow through the majority of states that allow corporate and union donations.

Hagel also calls for tripling the current limits on individual hard money contributions, from $1,000 to $3,000. As only one-tenth of 1 percent of the American public currently gives $1,000 or more to federal campaigns, this provision would greatly increase the influence of the tiny wealthy elite that already dominates the financing of campaigns.

When Hagel first unveiled his bill, it was denounced by reform groups and leading editorial voices like The New York Times. But Senate Rules Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell--who has periodically signaled that he might accept a cap on soft money in exchange for the raising of hard money limits--welcomed it in temperate tones, calling it "a good place to start," and has announced that the Rules Committee will soon hold hearings on campaign reform, with the Hagel bill to be marked up at their conclusion. Most significantly, however, the bill has garnered no criticism from Senator McCain. In fact, McCain told The Detroit News that "as part of any reform, I would be more than happy to increase the individual contribution."

So here's how the Bush camp can co-opt McCain: McConnell makes a big show of inviting McCain to his hearings and giving him a platform to decry the corruption of politics by big money--something McConnell disputes even exists. Then, to show that they have "gotten McCain's message," the Republicans revise the Hagel bill to put a lower total cap on individual soft money at, say, $50,000, and they agree to shut down corporate and union soft money. And they triple hard money contribution limits. With great fanfare, McCain and Bush endorse the reform package and each other.

Unfortunately, as long as the bill includes no "pay-check protection" proviso prohibiting the use of union dues for political donations, there's a real danger that a number of Democrats would cross over to support it. Why? Because many Democratic incumbents would love to triple the hard money limits out of a mistaken belief that this will make their fundraising easier. (In fact, it will just advantage the Republicans more.) And given that they're currently raising as much soft money as their Republican colleagues, the Democrats are ready to pass a weak bill, call it reform, and hope the issue dies.