The road has been long, and sprinkled with Republican blood. For five years, McCain has butted up against Trent Lott's gatekeeping, Mitch McConnell's filibustering and the natural antipathy of Washington to point the scalpel of reform in its own direction. For a year, he waged an impossible and charmingly self-aggrandizing presidential run, hollering for a renegotiation of the politician's social contract from the back seat of a bus. And when "The Straight Talk Express" finally pulled over to let George W. Bush pass, McCain climbed out and went back to the Senate floor, pointing his shadow army of McCainiacs directly at the President, who, in the end, decided he didn't want him as an enemy.
The McCain pitch seemed to just possibly hold the key to that unseen half of the American populace that had ceased to complain about the way Washington did its business, and had simply dropped out. And deep down, the informal majority of working senators and congressmen had long shared McCain's loathing for the money-drenched system that conferred on them their power but maybe robbed them of their souls (and a good deal of time and energy to boot).
Does anyone out there really care?
But McCain still scaled this Hill without a tangible mandate. Campaign finance reform was something most folks claimed to want, but nobody seemed to want very badly. McCain always said that was because folks didn't want to get their hopes up, but the truth is that Mitch McConnell was half right when he likened soft money, in terms of voter importance, to static cling. If the Senate had killed it again, certainly the sour-faced independents and certainly the liberal press would have let out an audible and disgusted sigh. But the Republican leaders and their corporations actually despise it, the Democratic leaders and their unions are terrified of it, and the sigh from the Hill would have been closer to one of relief. Washington and its ways would have marched on, and few employed politicians were going to be too broken up about that.
Except for possibly McCain. McCain's career has always quixotic, from the line-item veto to the tobacco deal, and it will be interesting to watch how he wears his victory. For the politician in him and make no mistake, there is one the beauty of campaign finance reform is that it's the unified theory of electoral disenchantment, the root-cause panacea for all that ails a government whose limbs are bloated and enfeebled by soft-money gout. Washington had a sickness; McCain had a vaccine. And his great accomplishment this week was to get the physicians to turn the syringe on themselves.
He gave reform a chance
After the little vote Thursday that pointed McCain toward his big victory, Cindy McCain faced the cameras with her husband and blinked away tears. The two weeks of free-for-all Senate debate that her husband had warned would be no "day at the beach" had turned out to be a rather gratifying display of old-time democracy studded with orations and marked by backroom compromise. McCain forced party leaders let him tempt the members of the United States Senate with the prospect of less prostituted lives and for whatever reason, more than half of them went for it.
McCain-Feingold is not yet the law of the land. The final vote has been pushed until Monday by a budget tug-of-war, and reform's enemies in the House are already digging in their heels. Any passed bill faces a long flight of stairs to the Supreme Court, after which we may well find out that banning soft-money donations to political parties only makes things worse.
But we should celebrate while we can. Put aside the supposed relationship between soft money and free speech, and the likelihood that money and power will always seek each other out in the end. The inscription on McCain's statue, if there ever is one, need only have one line: For two weeks in March of the year 2001, the senator from Arizona succeeded in overcoming Washington politicians' biggest special interest: themselves.
"This is a stunningly stupid thing to do, my colleagues, and don't think anybody out there is going to save us from this," McConnell said sternly. "I just want to welcome you to a hard-money world."
Responded Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who was McCain's general on the floor: "Yes, it is a new world. And I think it is a better world."
To McCain: Just Kidding
TIME, MARCH 19, 2001
PEOPLE, AUGUST, 17, 2000
PEOPLE, MAY 10, 2000
McCain an Internet Tax Extremist?
FORTUNE, MARCH 6, 2000
TIME, FEBRUARY 14, 2000, cover story
TIME, DECEMBER 13, 1999, cover story
John the Unassailable
FORTUNE, JUNE 21, 1999
Biography and Career
Straight Talk America The web site of the former presidential candidate
Faith of My Fathers Random House published his autobiography
Thomas The official congressional web site for searching bills, laws and other activities
People.com People Profile of John McCain
Search Peruse the results for John McCain
Background and Issues
FEC Info Database for campaign finance info. including PACs, Soft Money and contributors.
Common Cause: Soft Money Laundromat Searchable database of special interest soft money contributions to both major parties.
Brookings Institution Offers extensive coverage of campaign finance
Center for Responsive Politics Background on the issues, events and key figures