Washington Sen. Roscoe Conkling, the great 19th-century New York boss, was once described by a political rival as traversing Capitol Hill with a "turkey-gobbler strut." Watching Sen. John McCain of Arizona these days, you can't help thinking of Roscoe Conkling.
McCain is much admired for his ordeal as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and with reason. McCain, who was a cutup at the Naval Academy and self-described hell-raiser as a young officer, was a heroic figure to his suffering fellow prisoners, and as senator and presidential candidate has been largely immune to criticism. The Washington press corps prides itself on its resistance to political charm, but John McCain has hypnotized scores of columnists and reporters. It's not hard to see why: His candor and naturally rebellious nature appeal to Baby Boomers.
But at age 65, McCain has grown a little old for the part. He still likes to kick the shins of his elders, and flash a naughty smile when admonished. No doubt, when he looks at Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Senate majority leader, or Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate's most resolute opponent of campaign-finance "reform," he sees those crusty old admirals at Annapolis, and it's 1957 again.
Having been soundly defeated by George W. Bush in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, McCain returned to Washington the winner in the hearts of the media. His primary issue, campaign finance, remains low on the public's list of concerns; but the press shares his view that money is the root of political evil. When the Democrats reduced the Republican majority in the Senate to the vote of Vice President Cheney, McCain demanded and obtained from Lott a pledge to allow debate on his campaign-finance legislation, and a vote. We are now in the middle of the debate.
McCain is one of those politicians who tend to personalize issues: Anyone who disagrees with him is not just wrong, but corrupt, and offensive to the senator. This odor of sanctimony has been enhanced by the fact that his fellow enthusiasts for campaign-finance "reform" in the Senate were almost exclusively Democrats who, when a minority, could vote freely for the McCain-Feingold bill.
But that has now changed. The votes to enact McCain-Feingold exist, in theory; but better yet, the Democrats have awakened to the reality of eliminating soft money, cash raised by nonpartisan organizations to finance issue ads and campaigns. Democrats now acquire at least as much soft money as Republicans, and if McCain-Feingold were enacted, they would be at a distinct financial disadvantage, dashing any hopes of recapturing the House and Senate in 2002. As a consequence, McCain's Democratic friends are falling away from the faith, and the fate of his bill is now far from certain.
This is, on the whole, a happy development. The press is persuaded that fund-raising, and the cost of campaigns, have crippled our democracy. But there is no evidence that this is true or, for that matter, that democracy is crippled. There is no particular correlation between the expenditure of cash and success on Capitol Hill, and many laws are passed in defiance of well-financed interests.
Moreover, while the cost of modern campaigns is impressive, it is useful to put such figures in perspective. As Federal Election Commissioner Bradley Smith points out, in 1998, general election candidates spent $740 million over a two-year period about $4 per eligible voter. Remember Michael Huffington, the California Senate candidate who, in 1994, horrified the press by spending $20 million of his own money, and lost? That same year, a little more than $100 million was spent to underwrite advertising for reruns of "Seinfeld."
The McCain-Feingold bill would not just ban soft money. It would effectively interfere with the right of Americans, individually or joined with others, to participate in the political process, and give the federal government the power to supersede state election laws, and decide who can do what, when and how.
It would criminalize the exercise of free speech on political issues, and regulate public opinion and debate. This is not just an assault on the First Amendment; it is, at heart, an incumbent-protection measure.
McCain's strongest support among his colleagues has been based on their fury that people might actually criticize their actions, or organize opposition to their policies or, at worst, challenge them in campaigns.
Of course, that is called democracy. What McCain and Russ Feingold want is not reform of campaign finance, but the power of the federal government to protect them from people who draft petitions, raise money, stuff envelopes and remind them that even senators who walk with a turkey-gobbler strut must answer to the people who elect them to office.
Philip Terzian is the associate editor of the Providence Journal.