McCain: After Finance Reform, What?

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George Bush signed John McCain's campaign finance reform bill with as little fanfare as possible last week, going so far as to have an aide phone the Arizona senator with the news rather than inviting him to a signing ceremony. Bush hopes enactment of the bill, which McCain has been pushing for seven years, will finally shift the spotlight away from his nemesis from the 2000 presidential primary. And he's not the only one hoping for a breather — GOP senators would also like a break from McCain's legislative reforms.

They shouldn't count on getting one. I interviewed McCain last week and found he wants to capitalize on the success of the campaign reform bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, not coast on its success, and has plans for other ambitious initiatives. Excerpts from our talk:

TIME: So what's next?

John McCain: We have a crowded agenda ranging from getting the patients' bill of rights done to national service to reform of the military to a broad range of telecommunications issues. And I can now focus a lot of time and attention to pork barrel spending, which has become outrageous and obscene.

You've talked about strengthening the enforcement mechanism for the Federal Elections Commission?

A. Yes, we're going to have to do it. First thing we have to do is simplify language for the FEC so that they'll know exactly what we meant (with the campaign reform bill). Then we're going to have to look at legislation to reorganize the FEC to make it an agency that can be effective.

What happens after that?

One of the things Russ Feingold and I will be doing is trying to assist state initiatives that ask us to support efforts that reform their campaign systems. We'll help the states that want us to. We don't intend to come parachuting in and say here's what's best for you. But you'll see ballot initiatives in various states for campaign finance reform.

When the final vote came two weeks ago on campaign finance reform, what went through your mind?

It was mainly relief. It has been a very tough, very bruising ordeal. What this was really all about was taking power away from people. Whenever you do that you provoke very deep resentment.

Are you trying to patch up frayed relations with other senators?

Most members who were staunchly opposed to campaign reform came up to me and said, "Congratulations. You fought a good fight. We're ready to move on." The resentment isn't really coming from my colleagues. The resentment is out there in the right wing community — the Rush Limbaughs, those people. (Republican) Sen. Larry Craig came up and said, "I don't agree with you, but nice job." In fact, just about everybody said that. I think (Republican) Sen. Mitch McConnell's statements were largely genuine when he said we've had a very hard fight but it was an honorable encounter. Most of these guys are mature enough to take a loss and understand that you just move on. And the other thing is that when you've got a 51-49 Senate, you need every vote.

They can't ostracize you like they did Sen. Jim Jeffords, who bolted the Republican Party and gave the Democrats the majority in the Senate.


There are Republicans and some Democrats who hope you'll fade away now. You've had your time in the spotlight.

That's not what I believe public service is all about. There are a lot of issues that I have been involved in and continue to be involved in. There's also an old adage in politics and life: nothing succeeds like success.

Will you run for reelection in 2004 or retire from the Senate?

I haven't contemplated that because I don't think there's any reason to until after the elections in November.

What kind of options have you been mulling?

I really haven't been thinking about it much, to tell you the truth. I want to see what the lay of the land is after the November elections. I'm sure that issues such as whether Republicans have control of the Senate or not and what I think more needs to be done will be factors. I think there are a lot of factors to be considered. I've believed in public service, but I'm also not getting any younger.

Any thoughts of mounting a presidential campaign in 2004 or 2008?

No, I haven't any contemplation of it. The way things stand now I do not envision a scenario where I would run for president.

Do you plan to campaign in 2002 for Republican candidates who supported campaign finance reform?

I want to do whatever I can to help particularly those Republican freshmen congressmen like Rob Simmons and Mark Kirk and others who had the courage to vote for CFR. They obviously would be my highest priority. I really owe them.

The White House sees you as a thorn in its side. How do you see your relations with Bush evolving?

My relations are very cordial. When they say that I've been a thorn in their side, it might be nice for them to be specific. I campaigned on campaign finance reform. That was pretty well known. I campaigned on the patients' bill of rights. We had our differences, well articulated and ventilated during the primary.

Any thoughts of switching to the Democratic Party or becoming an independent like Jeffords?

Oh, no. I am a profound, fervent disciple of Theodore Roosevelt and I'd like to try to shape the Republican Party back more into his mold, with a vision of America's greatness — conservation, environmentalism and compassion for those who are less well off in our society.

Is the Republican Party eager to be reshaped?

Listen, we're either going to expand the base of the party or we will be a minority party over time, especially in my part of the country. The demographics dictate that, particularly in the West and Southwest.