McCain: Campaign Finance Is a Campaign Issue
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 1999; Page A8
BEDFORD, N.H., June 30 – On the day that his leading rival broke the record for early campaign fund-raising, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) set out to convince Republicans that no one except an advocate of sweeping campaign finance reform like himself could really change Washington.
McCain came to the home of the first primary to declare that a new president cannot break "special interest" government in Washington without first destroying "a campaign finance system that is nothing less than an influence-peddling scheme in which both parties compete to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."
The lead Republican sponsor of a campaign finance bill that has been blocked by a GOP Senate filibuster, McCain said he would defy conventional wisdom and make the issue a centerpiece of his campaign.
The mid-day crowd of 200 attracted to the Bedford Town Hall by McCain's appearance and the promise of a free lunch applauded 20 times during a 20-minute speech. And he drew whoops and cheers when he said, "I've been told that there is no room for this issue in Republican primaries. Well, I intend to make room for it."
According to his aides, McCain has raised about $6 million for his campaign, including a $2 million transfer from his Senate campaign. That is far behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush but more than anyone else in the big GOP field. He has drawn heavily on contributors involved in the telecommunications and aviation fields with vital interests in his role as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Some Washington lobbyists say his fund-raisers have been blunt in calling on them for help.
But McCain vowed to renew the fight to abolish the provision in current law permitting big-dollar "soft money" contributions from individuals, corporations and labor unions to party committees -- a battle that he and his co-sponsor, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) lost in the last Congress.
Although his aides said he had no specific timetable or strategy for forcing another floor vote on the legislation, McCain called on "every American who cares about our country's future to let Congress know you want us to put the national interest ahead of the special interests." Earlier this week, he set up a Web site called www.itsyourcountry.com where people can petition Congress for campaign reform and make credit card donations to the McCain campaign.
The Arizona senator, who enjoyed a publicity bonanza during the Kosovo crisis as the most outspoken advocate of preparing for a ground war, may find campaign finance another vehicle for earning free media exposure. He was on NBC's "Today" show this morning and Time magazine has a full-page story in its new issue on "McCain's next battle."
The senator excoriated politicians for feeding "widespread cynicism bordering on alienation" among the voters. "Those of us privileged to hold public office have ourselves to blame for the sickness in American public life today," he said.
Citing examples from the Democratic fund-raising scandals of 1996, he said Americans are offended that "the Lincoln bedroom has become a Motel 6 where the president of the United States serves as a bellhop . . . [and] monks and nuns abandon their vows of poverty and pay tens of thousands of dollars to have spiritual communion with the vice president."
But he did not spare Congress or his party, saying "in the last several years, while Republicans controlled Congress, special-interest earmarks in appropriations bills have dramatically increased" and defense spending priorities have been ignored to reward makers of weapons systems who give big donations.
He said the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- which he was the only senator to oppose on final passage -- was written in a process where "every company affected had purchased a seat at the table with soft money" while consumers were left outside. As a result, he said "lower prices that competition produces never materialized. Cable rates went up. Phone rates went up. And huge broadcasting giants received for free billions of dollars in digital spectrum property that belonged to the American people."
"We are all shortchanged by soft money, liberal and conservative alike," McCain said. "All of our ideals are sacrificed. We are all corrupted."
When McCain entered the race, many observers said he would be hurt by his role in the campaign finance fight. His bill is opposed not only by the vast majority of his Republican Senate colleagues but by the National Rifle Association, the National Right to Life Committee and much of the business community, who say it would weaken their ability to influence voters while leaving organized labor largely untouched.
By describing campaign finance reform as the key to serious tax and regulatory reform and other conservative causes, McCain is seeking to turn the issue into an asset.
In today's audience, he made some converts. Dan Leonard of Amherst said after the speech, "I haven't thought that was one of our biggest issues. But our country is falling apart and that may be one of the reasons I hadn't thought about before. He is a good man."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company