Published on Monday, March 12, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
When McCain-Feingold Push Comes to Shove Watch Who's Backing Off
by Dan Schnur
When Bill Clinton left office after eight years of fund-raising
excesses, improprieties and illegalities, many Republicans were still baffled
over the lack of public outrage over his behavior. Until the former
president's pardon of international fugitive Marc Rich just before leaving
office earlier this year, Clinton seemed invulnerable to criticism about the
various schemes through which he financed his election campaigns.
But Americans know inconsistency when they see it. And more often than not, Republican criticisms of Clinton's conduct were undermined by the reluctance of GOP congressional leaders to support measures that would reform the nation's campaign finance system.
For the better part of a decade, Clinton's defenders gleefully used the issue of campaign finance reform as an all-purpose shield.
If the Republicans are that upset about the influence of big money in politics, they would ask, why won't the GOP support efforts to place limits on large-scale political contributions?
Year after year, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., would bring their legislation to ban unlimited "soft" money contributions to the Senate floor. Year after year, the overwhelming majority of Democrats would line up behind the bill. Year after year, lack of Republican support would keep campaign finance reform from moving forward.
But one of the underlying secrets in this annual exercise is that most Democrats in Congress are just as opposed as Republicans to reining in unlimited political contributions. If McCain-Feingold would prohibit multimillion-dollar contributions from business donors to the Republican Party,
it would also cut off hundreds of millions of dollars Democrats receive each year from organized labor, trial lawyers and left-leaning interest groups.
Republican intransigence thus provided Democratic lawmakers with one of the most precious commodities in Washington: a free vote. Knowing that campaign finance reform could never become law over Republican opposition, Democrats could vote for the bill without fear of its consequences.
Operating from this moral high ground, Democrats had the best of both worlds. On one hand, they could accuse Republicans of being beholden to big- moneyed special interests. At the same time, they could continue to pocket unlimited contributions from their own ideological allies. Rarely have sanctimony and greed worked together in such perfect concert.
But as the Clinton era drew to a close, two significant changes occurred.
After years when Republicans consistently outperformed Democrats in pursuit of unlimited soft-money contributions, there is recent evidence of both a growing GOP small-donor base and increased Democratic reliance on unions and wealthy individuals. Accordingly, Democratic party fundraising may be slightly more affected by the passage of McCain-Feingold.
At the same time, eight years of Clinton fundraising outrages began to have a corrosive effect on the voting public. Disgust with an out-of-control political fundraising system fueled the presidential primary campaigns of Republican McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley and forced Al Gore and George W. Bush to explain what types of reforms they would support. And opposition to campaign finance reform helped defeat incumbent Republican senators in Michigan and Washington state.
Most Americans may not have known the difference between soft money and fabric softener. But they knew that their government no longer belonged to them. They understood that their voice in the political process has been appropriated by special interests, whose large-scale campaign contributions provide access and influence far beyond the reach of the average citizen.
So when Congress returned to work this January, the prospects for McCain- Feingold were greatly improved. But as the possibility for passage of campaign finance reform legislation grew, it put longtime Democratic supporters in a precarious position. Their support for McCain-Feingold might actually result in passage.
The reaction to these increased stakes has been unfortunate. After years of tacit support for the bill, the AFL-CIO announced last month that it would oppose McCain-Feingold because of its impact on union political spending. Democratic senators who have relied on union support over the years are reconsidering their position. Votes that came so easily in years past are now in doubt.
McCain and Feingold are in San Francisco today to rally support for campaign finance reform. But as labor and Democratic doubts begin to grow, the stakes of visiting this Democratic stronghold have grown. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have spoken out on behalf of the bill regularly over the years; their constituents must insist on continued support from them even in this new landscape.
Organized labor is not alone in its opposition to McCain-Feingold. Lined up against it are special interests from across the ideological spectrum, from the Christian Coalition to the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Association of Manufacturers. The one characteristic these groups share is a disproportionate amount of access and influence. A level playing field only helps the vast majority of Americans who can't afford a six-figure donation to their preferred political party.
For the better part of the past decade, campaign finance reform has been one of the most useful weapons in the Democratic arsenal. Now that it moves from a perennial political issue to potential political reality, the question is whether Feinstein and Boxer can forego the temptation to put their mouths where their money is.
Dan Schnur, longtime veteran of California politics, was communications director for Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle