A New Day or a False Dawn?

  • Share
  • Read Later

McCain and Feingold on the roof of the Russell office building

For years, John McCain had imagined how the Last Battle would be fought, how he would be tested if campaign finance reform actually came to a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Ever the rebel among his risk-averse peers, McCain would have to do some things he had never been much good at, cut some corners, play the inside game, be a dealmaker — be more like them in hopes of making them more like him. And then, once he had bullied and cajoled and converted his colleagues, he would have to do something even harder. He would have to trust them. And that's what finally happened last Wednesday afternoon, when a big, messy coalition of reformers from both parties gathered in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room to decide whether to hold hands and jump off the cliff together. As McCain entered the summit early Wednesday afternoon, the size of his gamble scared him, and he wondered if he'd misplaced his faith. "When I walked in that room and sat down, I didn't think our chances were very good," he says.

By the end of the day, however, the chances looked considerably better; the two sides agreed to increase the amount of hard money individuals could give candidates and parties, and that compromise paved the way for the historic vote to ban the unlimited soft-money donations that parties could collect from corporations, unions and the wealthy. By the end of the week the Arizona senator, his sidekick, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and their merry band of china breakers actually had victory in sight — a victory that could lead to the most dramatic campaign finance overhaul since the post-Watergate reforms of 1974. McCain-Feingold's reforms are so sweeping, in fact, that no one can be sure of what will happen after this week. The House will get its turn, and there are lots of anxious lawmakers on both sides who have reason to kill the bill before it kills them. Then President George W. Bush has to sign it. (He has hinted he will.) Finally, the courts will have to rule on the legal challenges that reform opponents are already drafting, particularly to a provision that would limit political advertising by independent groups like the NRA and the Sierra Club in the last weeks before an election.

But the big question is this: If the bill becomes law, will it truly disinfect our politics? The end of Clinton's presidency and the launch of Bush's were a parable for reformers, between the pardons for Democratic fat cats and the environmental policy clout of Big Business. But like a virus, political money has a way of mutating so it spreads in any environment. Be careful what you wish for. The cure may be worse than the disease. "This is a stunningly stupid thing to do, my colleagues," Kentucky's Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor, "and don't think there's anyone out there to save us from this."

For McCain and Feingold, who brush aside such alarms, it was a moment for celebration, and not only because they were poised to win a lonely battle they had fought for years. The two weeks of debate that ended Friday surprised many veterans of the Senate's joyless forced marches. The debate was both civil and principled; people listened, and some even changed their mind, persuaded by new arguments and old loyalties to make a leap of faith. No one knew as the week went on how it would turn out; every day brought another threat to the bill's survival, and the best head counters in the chamber were stumped about who would act as saboteur, who would turn out to be a savior.

McCain and Feingold thought they had a good idea who their enemies were. McConnell never pretended to see the smallest merit in anything they proposed. To him the debate is a basic free-speech issue: if people want to spend their money supporting candidates or making TV ads about a candidate's environmental record, that is their prerogative. But as the week began, it was not McConnell who posed the greatest threat. It was, of all people, Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, the most earnest, make-the-world-a-better-place senator of all.

If you really want to reform the system, Wellstone argued, you can't just shuffle the money from parties to outside groups. It wasn't enough to limit issues ads by unions and corporations in the last weeks of a campaign; he proposed extending the limits to all advocacy groups, from the Christian Coalition to the Feminist Majority Foundation. But any limit on political speech makes First Amendment purists queasy, and his amendment, reformers feared, would never pass constitutional muster. And that might one day be all it would take to kill the entire bill — if the Senate passed a "non-severability" amendment, the great deal breaker that meant that if any part of the bill was ruled unconstitutional, the entire thing would be thrown out. Wellstone's amendment was so constitutionally dubious that it invited the courts to strike it down — and, potentially, the whole soft-money ban along with it. For McConnell, that made it perfect.

The wooden benches with the red velvet cushions in the back of the Senate chamber are where staff members sit for hours, partly to follow the debate, partly because it's the best place to pick up intelligence. Mark Buse, 35, has been doing that job for McCain for 17 years. He became so adept at rooting out legislative pork that McCain calls him "the Ferret." Listening to other staff members gossip on Monday afternoon, Buse picked up his first hint of trouble. Both McConnell and Texan Phil Gramm, another reform foe, were going to vote with Wellstone. Why would Gramm and McConnell vote with a liberal? Suddenly Buse understood: Wellstone's amendment was a poison pill, with the potential to kill the whole measure. He rushed to warn McCain.

McCain knew the worst was happening when he came into the Senate chamber for the vote. "Gramm was standing down in the well, grabbing people and talking to them, going back into the cloakroom," he says. And it wasn't just fellow Republicans plotting against the bill. McCain and Feingold realized that some Democrats privately wanted to see the bill die. It had been easy to support in the past, when it had no chance of passing. But in the 2000 election the Democrats had become as slick as the Republicans at raising soft money; do away with it, and all that would be left is hard money, where the GOP still holds a big advantage. Some Democrats approached McConnell quietly, he told TIME, with private pleas to "stop this from happening" and "pull some rabbit out of the hat one more time." Wellstone's amendment was the ticket. "I viewed it as another unconstitutional ornament we could put on this tree," McConnell says. "I was trying to get as many problems into the bill I could, so that if we ended up in court, we had a target-rich environment." He went to colleagues and said, "This is grotesquely unconstitutional. Please vote for it."

In the end a strange alliance of pro- and anti-reform purists — 27 Democrats and 24 Republicans — passed Wellstone's amendment. Never the most skilled inside player, McCain realized he had been blindsided. He began to suspect that even Democrats who had voted with him, like Minority Leader Tom Daschle, were secretly against him. The next morning, as he boarded the little subway train that runs between the Senate office buildings and the Capitol, McCain was muttering, as much to himself as anyone, "Game face on..."

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3