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Sen. John McCain stroked the fantasies of campaign finance reformers with the impression that he would cross the aisle and vote with Democrats to help pass the DISCLOSE Act legislation, but yesterday the bill failed after a 51-44 party-line vote in favor. Behold the star-crossed romance...

The flirtation began in March when McCain went on Ira Glass's This American Life, a rather lonely venue for Republicans, to rail against the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which overturned parts of the campaign reform known as McCain-Feingold, calling it "one of the worst decisions in the history of the United States Supreme Court." Reflecting on the court's oral arguments, he said watching it was "one of the most depressing times I've ever had here in Washington."

If trashing the Roberts Court decision wasn't enough to get the liberal libido pumping, McCain's May interview with The Hill's Alexander Bolton surely was. In the article, McCain revealed he was huddling with Democrats on a new campaign finance proposal that would shed light on the gusher of dark money flooding Washington. The White House said it was "excited about having McCain as an ally" and praised his "remarkable record of courage and dedication in this area." 

That's when the love train started accelerating. Liberal magazine The Nation ran with the headline "Will John McCain Save Campaign Finance Reform?" It noted that "his now-public support" for the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required outside political groups to disclose the names of wealthy donors, is "very notable." A New York Times editorial followed suite noting that McCain had retreated from his reformist goals in recent years but "He may finally be ready to get back in." Those reports were outdone by the liberal magazine Mother Jones running a flattering profile of McCain under the headline: "John McCain: The Maverick Returns?" Staffer Andy Kroll wrote:

McCain is starting to resemble his reformer self again. He slams the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision every chance he gets. He has teamed up with Democrats to demand a rethinking of Citizens United and to craft a new bill that would beef up disclosure of campaign donations and political ads. "He is starting to exert himself, which he had not been doing over the past couple years," says Craig Holman, the top lobbyist for Public Citizen ... 

Russ Feingold, who has kept in touch with his former legislative partner, says McCain has fully rejoined the reform fight ... All are signs that McCain the maverick is back. "There's really nothing better for the reform effort than having his commitment again," Feingold says. "He's very tenacious about it, and he believes in it."

So what happened?

Did McCain dump liberals? Or did liberals, more specifically Democrats in Congress, dump McCain? If you take McCain at his word, it's because the bill was too favorable to unions. “In its current form, the DISCLOSE Act is closer to a clever attempt at political gamesmanship, than actual reform,” McCain said. “By conveniently setting high thresholds for reporting requirements, the DISCLOSE Act forces some entities to inform the public about the origins of their financial support, while allowing others — most notably those affiliated with organized labor — to fly below the Federal Election Commission’s regulatory radar.”

This "high" threshold for reporting, as McCain said, required companies and unions to report campaign spending that exceeded $10,000. Presumably, McCain is upset about union spending under $10,000 that is going under the radar. Either that, or McCain is still lurching right, the same trajectory he took starting with his presidential bid in 2008 when he all but abandoned his previous legislative achievements in campaign finance reform such as McCain-Feingold. Regardless, you can bet the Arizona senator will have a much harder time building hype with liberals the next time his Mavericky side rears its head.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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