It's King Kong vs. Godzilla, a clash of political titans—George W. Bush and John McCain—with each claiming the mandate of Election 2000. The battlefield is campaign finance reform. The soldiers are U.S. Senators, who are terrified of being crushed as these two behemoths battle.
McCain won the Battle of New Hampshire. His prize? The title of reformer in chief. He's now fighting to protect his legacy. "We are doing this for the next generation of Americans," McCain declared at a recent town hall meeting.
Bush won the Battle of Florida. His prize? The title of commander in chief. He's fighting to protect his authority. Last week, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a provision supported by President Bush that would have required labor unions and corporations to get written permission from their members or stockholders before making political contributions. Bush has said he is "confident [Congress] will be able to come up with a bill that I can sign."
The issue is whose version of campaign finance reform will prevail. Will it be McCain's, with its total ban on unregulated "soft money" and restrictions on issue advertising, or Bush's, with no ban on soft-money contributions by individual donors? Regarding Bush's position, McCain said, "I have two words in response to that: Denise Rich"—a reference to the huge donations made by the ex-wife of Marc Rich, the fugitive financier pardoned by President Clinton.
What Bush has is the power to sign or veto campaign finance legislation. What McCain has is a public following that crosses party lines.
The two contenders are roughly equal in public standing, with favorability ratings each topping 60 percent. But there's a key difference. Bush is wildly popular among Republicans (95 percent favorable) but much weaker among Democrats (35 percent). McCain's support is more evenly spread among Republicans (66 percent favorable), independents (58 percent), and Democrats (61 percent). For all of Bush's rhetoric about reaching across party lines, McCain is the leading bipartisan figure in Washington.
Many people suspect that McCain harbors ambitions of running for President in 2004—as an independent or a third-party candidate. That would likely be McCain's last shot at the White House, since he'll be 68 years old by Election Day 2004. Bush will very likely have the GOP nomination locked up.
In the past, congressional votes on campaign finance reform have been highly partisan. Democrats have battled heroically for the McCain-Feingold bill, knowing that Republicans, led by fierce warrior Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had the votes to stop it in the Senate. But this year, McConnell doesn't have the votes.
If campaign finance reform is a partisan issue, nobody has told the public. In last week's CNN/Time poll, Republicans, Democrats, and independents were all inclined to favor McCain-Feingold by about the same margin.
Many Senators, however, are apprehensive about campaign finance reform. As McCain has noted, "We're asking incumbents to change a system that keeps incumbents in office." Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has observed "some knocking of knees, nervousness" among his fellow Democrats. In the 2000 election cycle, Democrats matched Republicans on soft money.
But Republicans continue to far outpace Democrats in the raising of "hard money" ($447 million to $270 million in 2000). Some Republicans, including Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma, say they will support the McCain-Feingold soft-money ban only if the bill raises the ceiling on hard-money contributions. That sounds like the worst possible deal for Democrats.
The ultimate compromise may look something like the alternative proposed by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., McCain's former ally. Hagel's bill would restrict soft-money donations while loosening the limits on hard-money contributions. "The Bush-Hagel approach is to destroy campaign reform as we know it," charged Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota. In McCain's view, "the Hagel bill is the opposite of reform. It is taking the [soft-money] system and putting the stamp of approval on it."
But Hagel's approach may be the only feasible compromise. Democrats, who took the lead in exploiting the soft-money loophole in current law during the presidential campaigns of Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton, are now the uncertain soldiers of reform. Republicans are determined to stop reform while claiming the mantle of reformers.
Meanwhile, the tidal wave of political money rolls on. "We saw it at the Democratic National Convention. We saw it at the Republican National Convention," Feingold said recently. "Soft money washing everywhere, even to the point where it infected the sacred pardon power of the President...."
Feingold's watery imagery is apt. The record shows that if money is prevented from flowing one way, it will find other openings. If soft-money contributions to political parties are banned, what's to stop the parties from setting up independent "foundations" to raise money and run issue ads? That is why even McCain acknowledges that 20 or 30 years from now, the campaign financing battle will have to be fought all over again.