McCain notwithstanding, it was largely and increasingly the Democrats who spoke out in favor of campaign-finance reform; the excesses of the 1996 election had made it virtually a necessity for them to do so, at least in public. During an appearance on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer several days after the 1996 election, for example, Richard Gephardt voiced his support for a ban on soft money (although, behind the scenes, he was helping to raise both hard and soft money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). During several 1997 debates between Steve Grossman, the DNC chairman, and Jim Nicholson, his Republican counterpart, Grossman offered to stop accepting soft money if the Republicans would do the same. Grossman's co-chairman, the Colorado governor Roy Romer, echoed the offer. Democrats could make this image-enhancing proposal comfortably, knowing that the Republicans would never agree to it.
In private, however, the attitude toward reform was often different. Representative Marty Meehan, a Democrat from Massachusetts who was elected in 1992 in part because of his call to change the system, recalls speaking at a House retreat in 1997. He had been asked to brief members on the version of a reform bill he was backing. To Meehan's surprise, four fellow Democrats (he won't say who) then gave obviously coordinated speeches opposing the bill, each citing a different practical reason: the bill would make it harder for the Democrats to get out the vote; it would disproportionately hurt the Congressional Black Caucus (because its members, many of whom represented poor districts, relied more heavily than others on get-out-the-vote funds from the party); it wasn't constitutional; it would hurt the labor unions, curbing their ability to use funds from members' dues to run television ads for candidates they supported. "They were all prepared well in advance," Meehan told me. "I was set up."
The pattern that Meehan's experience points to, whereby Democrats publicly embraced but privately opposed reform, continued after the 2000 elections. But the ground was shifting, and genuine support for reform was growing. McCain's presidential campaign had made him an immensely popular national figure. Eliminating soft money had been a pledge of that campaign, one that had been praised in the editorial pages of many influential papers. And soon a host of corporate scandals—Enron, Global Crossing, Tyco—enhanced the climate for financial reform of any kind.
The final push for campaign-finance reform began on January 22, 2001, when McCain, Feingold, Meehan, and Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, held a press conference proposing the bill that, in slightly altered form, was eventually passed. There was little overt opposition from Democrats, and the bill began to make its way through Congress. A handful of Democrats worked, in most cases quietly, against the measure; but it was soon embraced, not just publicly but also in closed-door sessions, by both Gephardt and Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader at the time, adding to its momentum. The bill passed in the House in February of 2002; the following month it passed in the Senate and was signed into law, although it did not take effect until eight months later.
Shooting Themselves in the Foot
The disastrous consequences of McCain-Feingold for the Democrats were immediate. In January and February of this year the main fundraising arms of the Republican Party took in roughly four times as much as their Democratic counterparts, raising $39.4 million to the Democrats' $9.6 million. The Republicans had raised more money in previous election cycles, too, when soft money was still legal, but the disparity had been far smaller (during the 1998 election cycle the Republicans raised $114 million to the Democrats' $79 million; during the 2000 cycle, $244 million to the Democrats' $219 million; during the 2002 cycle, $250 million to the Democrats' $220 million).