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Mary McGrory

McCain-Feingold Follies

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, March 28, 2002; Page A29

Who says he's a sore loser? Who says he just couldn't give John McCain his moment in the Rose Garden, a ceremonial signing of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill? Who says he would rather look petty than go through the gripping and grinning and pen-handling that a White House ceremony entails?

Who? Just about everybody, after George Bush dashed off his signature between bouts on Iraq with Condoleezza Rice and the vice president. Then he dashed off to raise funds.

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McCain got a call at 7 a.m. at his Arizona home from a junior White House aide whose name he didn't know, telling him the bill had been signed. Later, a White House emissary brought to his office a commemorative pen and a note of congratulation. McCain issued a statement striking for its terseness: "I'm pleased that President Bush has signed campaign reform legislation into law."

Perhaps Bush was playing, as he so often does, to his right wing, which hates McCain, foams at his bill and deplores his lack of deference to Bush. They attribute McCain's insubordination to the fact that he "never got over South Carolina" -- the state where Bush effectively ended McCain's White House hopes.

The right wing is not moved by the sight of magnanimity and bipartisanship. Right-wingers thought Bush was right to call the bill "flawed" the day it passed the Senate.

House Republicans were perhaps mollified to be shown that Bush was too busy plotting perhaps the bombing of Baghdad (Rice and Dick Cheney witnessed his signature) to pose for pictures of him putting pen to paper on a measure whose enemies say is both meaningless and unconstitutional. They say it will change nothing, which adds to the mystery of why they fought it so fiercely for seven years. When he was campaigning for the presidency, George Bush called the McCain-Feingold ban on soft money a suicidal move by Republicans: "unilateral disarmament."

The real audience for the grudging and churlish character of the signing may have been Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department, which must provide troops for the court battle Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is about to start against McCain-Feingold.

As a senator, John Ashcroft voted against reform every time he had the chance. McConnell never made any attempt to conceal his hostility toward McCain. Now he has assembled what he calls "a dream team" of lawyers to put McCain in his place. There's no question that if celebrity wattage is the key factor, McConnell will finally best John McCain.

His choice of Kenneth Starr is a real gasper. When McConnell triumphantly escorted the erstwhile independent counsel to meet the assembled reporters, there was much sharp intake of breath and dropping of jaws. The man who stalked Bill Clinton and buried him in pornographic detail in the most X-rated government report in history has powerful appeal to the legal conservative establishment. He was a respected solicitor general. He became a flaming hero to the right when he prosecuted Bill Clinton -- even though the Senate and the American people rejected his recommendation to fire Clinton.

Benjamin Wittes, a Washington Post editorial writer who has just come out with a book, "Starr: A Reassessment," thinks that Starr -- whom he regards as a good man -- will be "back in his element as an appellate court advocate" and will avoid "the excesses and extremes that caused him to make dangerous and wrongheaded decisions in his role of 'sex cop.' "

Floyd Abrams, the distinguished defender of the First Amendment, brings star quality and balance to McConnell's lineup. Kathleen Sullivan, dean of the Stanford Law School, is another figure not associated with the far right who will argue that McCain-Feingold abridges First Amendment rights.

But Fred Wertheimer, the veteran warrior for campaign reform who is coordinating the McCain-Feingold defense, says stoutly that "law not lawyers" is what will count in the end, as the dispute goes from a three-judge panel on the fast track to the Supreme Court.

The McCain team has a former solicitor general of its own to take the field, Seth Waxman. What's more, Waxman has won two campaign reform cases before the Supreme Court, both of which involved the constitutionality of spending and contribution limits. His teammate is Burt Neuborne, who was legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is opposed to McCain-Feingold.

"And don't forget," says Wertheimer, "we'll have the solicitor general of the U.S., Ted Olson, on our side" -- not to mention Ashcroft. They both promised a Senate committee they would do their darndest for the changes the president cares so little for.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company