"If we have the votes and the guts, we'll prevail."
In early January 2001, at breakfast in the Senate Dining Room, John McCain was in an upbeat mood. The large, ornate room was nearly empty; the new Congress had only recently convened and the new President wasn't to be sworn in for another couple of weeks.
McCain was already revved up for the next round in the battle he had been waging for many years to reform the nation's campaign finance laws. For McCain, campaign finance reform was about a broader ethic. As he demonstrated in his campaign for the Republican nomination in 2000, he sees it as essential to restoring the public's faith in politics, and also to attracting young people into politics and government service. For him, it has much to do with the very definition of the country, the workability of the democratic idea.
In the coming year, McCain was to broaden his agenda, become arguably the most interesting figure in American politics nearly as popular and at times more popular than even the President and point the way toward a new kind of reform politics. And in the weeks after the terrible events of September 11, his was the most consistently sought-after, and the clearest, voice out of Washington. During this time, he defined the situation, rallied the public's morale, and soothed it when it became fearful.
He understood that there was a more civic-minded streak, an idealism, in the public than more conventional politicians appealed to. His disdain for the conventions of politics had gained him a large following which went beyond the more than six million people who voted for him in 2000. He had an effortless feel for the national psyche and a natural instinct for the right thing to say. His efforts in the course of the year were to reveal new aspects of his character.
Now, as he undertook his seventh year of leading the effort to reform the campaign finance system, there were reasons for optimism. The Democrats had picked up four Senate seats in the previous election, the new Democratic senators providing a presumed four more votes for reform, and the Senate was now divided 50-50, with the Republicans in nominal control because vice-president-elect Dick Cheney could break a tie. (This was before James Jeffords switched from being a Republican to being an Independent.)
McCain's effort to enact reform of the campaign finance system had met with defeat in the Senate five times in the past six years. The House passed its version of his bill twice by wide margins, so the Senate became the crucible. A majority of the Senate had supported McCain's bill in the past or ostensibly so but the opponents of change, led by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and Majority Leader Trent Lott, first choked off debate so that amendments couldn't be offered to broaden support and then killed the bill by filibuster. Now McCain was determined to have an open debate, which could help him attract additional support by accepting amendments sponsored by senators who were on the fence. It would also help prevent Democrats who didn't want reform but didn't want to say so from playing devious parliamentary games, and hiding behind McConnell, as they had in 1999.
Referring to the last time he had fought for his bill, in 1999, when some of his Senate colleagues ripped into him because he had accurately called the current system corrupt, McCain said, "I'm not going to let them pull me into a personal combat. That was my worst test. I'm not going to engage in that again." McCain was in fact to make an important strategic change based on that lesson.
At the same time, McCain believed that the current campaign finance system was more of a plague on the body politic than ever. He said, "It's badly skewed our priorities, and blocked badly needed legislation to help the American people. It's never been worse in my time here. It affects everything: the tax code, the military, Medicare, Social Security, gambling you name it. I can give you a list of twenty issues that haven't been acted on, or cite the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was nothing like reform." Of that bill, McCain often said, "All the interests were at the table but the public interest."
"I'm just going to go ahead," McCain said over the breakfast in early January. "It's obvious that the longer you wait, the harder it is. On January 22, or whatever day we start business, I'll ask unanimous consent to move to consider our bill. If they block it, I'll come back the next day and the next day and then we'll have to start tying things up and they have to know that. We just won't let them proceed. The first bill they bring up, we'll offer it as an amendment. They don't have sixty votes for cloture now [the number needed to shut down a filibuster] or even fifty-one votes to block us by tabling my amendment."
Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, had already told McCain that the Democrats would stick with him at least on the early procedural issues. McCain said, "All it boils down to is if we have the votes and the guts, we'll prevail."
McCain's presidential campaign struck a chord when he told people he would "shake things up in Washington." Public disgust with the role of money in our political system was rising, and he gave it voice. The amount of money spent in a presidential election had grown by more than half a billion dollars since 1996, to $2.75 billion in the 2000 election. The amounts in themselves, though quite large, were less significant than what they reflected: the ever-increasing time that the politicians had to spend raising the money, the access and commitments (spoken or understood) that came with accepting that money, especially the six- or seven-figure amounts in "soft money" unregulated union, corporate, or individual contributions.
Another factor in McCain's favor now was that senators who had recently been through a campaign, or were about to undergo one, were becoming increasingly alarmed at both the amounts of money they had to raise and the number of ads by outside groups, some of mysterious origin, that could come at them from any direction.
A small band of Republicans had been with McCain in previous fights, but he needed some more in order to head off a filibuster against his bill. Despite his optimism McCain knew that he was asking incumbents to do a very hard thing: to change the system by which they'd been elected. He said, "This threatens every lobbyist on K Street. This threatens every business interest. So you can't underestimate the opposition. This thing will be trickier and more devious than anything I've ever done. It's a house of mirrors."
President-elect George W. Bush had shown scant interest in reform. After McCain walloped him in New Hampshire, Bush's aides redesigned their candidate as "a reformer with results" for the next contest, in South Carolina, and Bush offered a campaign finance proposal that wasn't taken very seriously and that Bush himself made little of during the rest of the campaign.
Since the election, the two men had had only perfunctory contact though McCain had campaigned with Bush in five states. McCain had also campaigned for about forty Republican House candidates and was credited by Tom Davis, the chairman of the House Republican campaign committee, with keeping the House in Republican hands. "I made a mistake early on," McCain said. "Several months before the election, I campaigned for a couple of guys who weren't for campaign finance reform. The opponents who were Democrats and were for campaign finance reform wrote me and said, 'What's the deal here?' I thought their complaints were legitimate, so after that I only campaigned for people who were for campaign finance reform. That's why I didn't go to the State of Washington for Slade Gorton [an incumbent Republican senator who lost narrowly] and didn't go to a number of places. If they weren't for it, I didn't go. Some changed their positions."
The McCain-Bush nomination struggle had left a substantial residue of bitterness between both the two men and their respective staffs. The McCain people remained especially bitter over the rough tactics that the Bush campaign and its allies had employed in South Carolina. The onslaught against McCain involved not just attacking his character but also distorting his campaign positions and spreading ugly rumors about his family. A retired Democratic South Carolina politician described it later as "the dirtiest, nastiest campaign I've ever seen." Mark Salter, McCain's closest aide, said, "I can't for the life of me see why they have a grudge against us." The Bush camp's resentment obviously stemmed from the fact that McCain had interrupted what was supposed to be Bush's stately march to the Republican Party's coronation. McCain defeated Bush in eight primaries, and though he made some missteps of his own, he was ultimately defeated by Bush's superior resources and closed primaries in which only Republicans could vote. (McCain had been winning among Independents and had succeeded in pulling new people, especially young people, into politics.) When President-elect Bush first came to Washington in December to confer with congressional leaders, he referred to McCain distantly as "my former opponent."
A few days after the election, Bush called McCain, and McCain suggested that they needed to meet and talk about campaign finance reform. Bush agreed. Later, Bush called McCain to thank him for holding an early hearing on his proposed Commerce Secretary but didn't bring up the issue of reform. "He didn't bring it up, and I didn't bring it up," McCain said. "Look, whenever he and I have a conversation, it's always cordial."
But McCain believed that Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist during the election, was controlling the political agenda. Much of the bitterness between the two campaigns got back to Rove, who was not only Bush's chief political tactician but also had a longstanding feud, going back to their early days as consultants, with McCain's political director, John Weaver. Though McCain had made it clear the previous summer that he would have waged the campaign finance fight whether Bush or Gore had won the Presidency ("We will have blood all over the floor of the Senate"), McCain said on that early January morning, "Don't underestimate the anger that this has generated among people like Karl Rove. 'Here's that spoiler McCain again.' I'm really intent on keeping smiling, no matter what they do, keep the game face on" a typical McCain expression.
McCain wanted early consideration of his bill because procedural delays could work against getting it through the Congress at all. And he had his eye on Bush's pen. McCain said, "It just seems to me that if we pass a bill early on by pretty significant margins, he'll have to think long and hard before vetoing it." In fact, McCain and his aides suspected that, with the help of Majority Leader Lott, the White House was pursuing a veto strategy: The later the bill got through Congress if it did the easier it would be for Bush to veto it because he would have other victories under his belt. McCain was already trying to collect enough commitments to show that this time he would have sixty votes to shut off a filibuster.
Meanwhile, Mark Buse, McCain's aide for campaign finance reform legislation, had already begun negotiating with a Lott aide about when the bill could be brought up. Lott offered to let that happen after Congress finished work on all of the appropriations bills, which usually means the end of the year. "I told Mark," McCain said, "'Tell him we were entertained by their offer.'" "Entertain" is another McCain word, often used sarcastically. Though McCain is dead serious about the issues he takes on, he doesn't take the give-and-take, the legislative gamesmanship, too solemnly. There's a streak of the mischievous in him, the scamp, which adds to his enjoyment of what he does and helps him get through the day. This streak also helped him survive the North Vietnamese prison camps. His highest form of praise for someone is to tell them, "We'd have had fun in the camps."
Despite his threats, McCain was actually angling for the bill to be brought up in March. He had more public support to build, more allies to acquire. But he was thinking ahead.
McCain's view of human relations seems to be heavily influenced by his five-and-a-half years in "the camps" in North Vietnam: He and his allies would never betray each other. And that's how, at the beginning of the year, he viewed his close friend Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska, one of four senators who had backed McCain's presidential campaign. Unbeknownst to McCain, Hagel was already talking to the White House about his own proposal. While McCain would completely abolish soft money, Hagel would enshrine it in national law for the first time by capping soft money contributions at $60,000 per year but also leaving a gaping loophole. Mitch McConnell, the archfoe of campaign finance reform, was talking up Hagel's proposal in the Senate Republican Conference; it also had the support of Republican strategists and lobbyists. It gave reform opponents something to be for.
"We are as close as you can be in the Senate," McCain said of Hagel, "but that doesn't bridge our disagreement on some issues. I know he would not do anything to harm me. I think all he wants is a vote on his proposal. Maybe Mitch may throw votes behind him, but I don't think he has fifty-one. We'll fight it out, and if there's a glaring loophole that emasculates campaign finance reform, I'll vote against final passage and be done with it."
Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth Drew