Republican Senator John McCain takes on President Bush on Campaign Finance Reform: An essay by Huck Gutman published in the Statesman, Kolkata (Calcutta) , India

McCain Ploy Puts Bush on Backfoot

April 9, 2001

       Despite a narrow victory in the polls – or, as some see it, a special dispensation by the Supreme Court to act as President – George Bush has encountered little serious political opposition in Washington. Mr. Bush is an odd politician, refusing to seek consensus: having been anointed rather than elected, he seems to disregard the wishes of the American populace.  His proposed agenda to provide huge tax cuts for the wealthy, to drill for oil in the pristine wilderness of Alaska, to funnel government money  to the poor through religious groups are in disfavor but there is no great political outcry.  No one in national politics has stepped up to take on the new President, who has considerable personal charm, always a bankable political commodity.

       No one, that is, but a senior senator of his own Republican party.  John McCain, who opposed Mr. Bush in the Presidential primaries and might have won except for the stalwart support of religious conservatives for the eventual nominee, is the only major figure in Washington who has had the courage to take on the new President head-on.

       And Mr. McCain has won, at least the battle.   The mainstay of his unsuccessful run for President was his commitment to campaign finance reform.   After Mr. Bush beat him in the primary elections, and garnered enough delegate support to win the nomination of the Republican convention to run as President, Mr. McCain graciously endorsed his bitter rival.  But it turns out he was only biding his time.

       No sooner was Mr. Bush elected than Mr. McCain, along with his Democratic counterpart Russell Feingold, introduced into the Senate their long-standing, but never passed, plan for campaign finance reform.  Bush had other legislative priorities: tax breaks, increased military spending, rescinding environmental protections.  But John McCain pressed forward, and used his national standing to make sure the campaign finance reform received widespread publicity so that it was the first item placed on the legislative calendar.

       The Senate is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, fifty of each party.  Although a new President should be especially able to muster his party’s faithful to support the Presidential agenda, Mr. Bush could not control his rival from setting campaign finance reform as the first serious legislation to come forward.  At first the President indicated he would veto any legislation to reform campaign finance practices.  But then his advisors pointed out the popularity of campaign finance reform, highlighting the fact that his presidential popularity (Mr. Bush’s favorability rating is at 60 percent, although his unfavorability rating has been climbing) would plummet if he vetoed the popular legislation.  Moreover, the Bush camp sees Mr. McCain’s legislation as a way of positioning the Senator for a primary challenge to Mr. Bush four years hence.   Campaign finance reform is, in American politics, widely supported – by the populace, if not the politicians.  Convinced by these considerations, Mr. Bush began saying that he would not necessarily veto the legislation, and might sign it.  That at least was his public position: in private, he fumed at McCain and the changes he was advocating.

       Campaign finance reform may well be the single most important issue facing the American nation.  There are more seemingly important issues, of course: poverty in the United States and elsewhere, sustaining economic growth, supporting international economic development, reversing environmental degradation, upholding the dignity of labor, ending racial and sexual discrimination.  But in America money seemingly can buy anything, most importantly political influence.  Big donors get special attention, bigger donors get special audiences, very large donors get special legislation and sweetheart contracts.

       As the Tehelka affair shows, Indian politicians have learned from their American brethren.  Buying influence and securing favors is ‘sanitized’ by replacing the wallets at the receiving end: instead of personal pockets, the wallets are not those of political parties and campaign finance budgets.  The global mantra of modern politics seems to be, echoing a memorable line in the Hollywood movie Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money!”

       Those with money – defense contractors, the powerful, the rich – buy access. Ordinary citizens have no voice on the political stage where money talks.  This is a corruption which is not individual, but social, and its ultimate victim is democracy.

       The McCain-Feingold legislation does not take big money out of politics, it only confines some of its corrupt influence.  So-called ‘soft money,’ the unrestricted contributions that can be made to political parties as a way of getting around limits on the contributions to individual candidates, would be banned.  Foreign nationals would be prohibited from contributing to American candidates.  Solicitation of money on federal property, including in the White House and the halls of Congress, would be prohibited.   Public information on campaign financing would be increased, and the internet would be used to post such information within a day of receipt by federal authorities.  (In a legislative compromise, however, the limitation on individual donations to political candidates would be raised.)

       President Bush and his allies will work hard to defeat the legislation in the House of Representatives, where the Republican Party has a majority.  But the popularity of the measure, and the bold and articulate advocacy of Senator McCain, should bring great pressure on Representatives to support the Senate bill, or maybe even strengthen it.

       Three things have already happened, even though the legislative process has a long way to go.  The most important legislation of recent years has cleared what has been its most significant hurdle, opposition in the Senate,  and is on its way towards possible passage.  The opposition to the new President has coalesced and emerged – in the unlikely presence of a member of his own party, John McCain.  And the Presidential primary of 2004 has, surprisingly, already begun; even more surprisingly, the newly elected President has already suffered his first major defeat in the forthcoming campaign.

Huck Gutman is Professor of English at the University of Vermont.  He was until recently a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Calcutta University and Jadavpur University.  He is the author, with U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, of Outsider in the House.