Do a Google News search for "John McCain" and "campaign finance reform" and you won't find much. John McCain doesn't talk about campaign finance reform anymore. After the Supreme Court issued their ruling in the Citizens United case, Sen. McCain declared campaign finance reform to be dead.
"I don't think there's much that can be done," he told "Face the Nation" moderator Bob Schieffer…
...Schieffer asked McCain if he thought the issue of campaign finance reform was "dead."
"Oh, I think so." He predicted a backlash would occur when people see the amounts of unfettered money, from corporations and unions, that will go into political campaigns.
"But in the short term, the Supreme Court has spoken. I respect their decision," he conceded.
I think McCain was prescient when he predicted that people would be disgusted by the consequences of Citizens United, but aside from a making a grumpy comment from time to time, McCain seems disinterested in joining in any backlash. This used to be his signature issue. So, what happened?
Your memory of the 2000 primaries might be kind of fuzzy these days, but one of the key features was that the contests (on both the Republican and Democratic sides) featured fairly strong challengers whose main message was that we needed campaign finance reform. In fact, they agreed on this point to such a degree that they actually held an event together in December 1999.
At their joint appearance in Claremont, N.H., today, Bill Bradley and John McCain seemed to be saying much the same thing about campaign finance reform. Both see the present system as murderous to democracy. McCain said at the event what he has often said before: that reform is required in order to "give the government of this country back to its citizens." Bradley, using somewhat stronger language, described big money a "plague," an acid "eating away at the core of our democracy" and as "a great stone wall that comes between the people and their representatives." As the two men also explained in a Nightline forum taped before their "handshake," they both support an outright ban on soft money--the huge, unregulated contributions funneled into the general election by way of the political parties.
Both men lost their respective party's nomination for president, but they succeeded in raising awareness about the corrupting influence of money in politics. The moment George W. Bush was inaugurated, John McCain put his campaign finance bill in the Senate hopper.
SCHIEFFER: The Bush administration is barely 48 hours old and the elbowing over agenda priorities is already under way. Earlier today, former presidential candidate John McCain kept his top campaign promise. He dropped the bipartisan campaign reform act of 2001 into the hopper on Capitol Hill, along with fellow Republican Thad Cochran and Democrat Russ Feingold -- Senator McCain here to talk about his legislation tonight and its chances for a speedy passage.
Senator McCain, you have put great emphasis from the start on getting this done first. Why is it so important to go first?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, I would have liked to have had it done first, because we are not doing anything legislatively for two or three weeks. That has been the case with the previous incoming administrations. But that was viewed -- and I think by some appropriately -- that it might sort of be taking precedence over President Bush's agenda.
So we are willing to wait a reasonable length of time…
A reasonable length of time turned out to be 14 months. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 was enacted on March 27, 2002. President Bush seemed reluctant to sign it, but he succumbed to tremendous public pressure. The bill was called "bipartisan," and it truly was. Twelve Republican senators voted for it, plus independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont. And 41 Republican members of the House supported it, too.
A look at the senate roll call is instructive. Senator Jeffords had just left the Republican party in disgust. He would be followed by Sens. Lincoln Chafee and Arlen Specter in later years. Sens. Pete Domenici, John Warner, and Pete Fitzgerald retired. Olympia Snowe is headed out the door. The only remaining Republican senators who supported the bill are Thad Cochran of Mississippi (who famously said that McCain was too unstable to be president), Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain, and the endangered Dick Lugar of Indiana. As a sidenote, the two Democrats who opposed the bill were John Breaux of Louisiana, who quit to run a lobbying firm with Trent Lott, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who is retiring at the end of the year.
What this shows us is that both parties, but particularly the Republicans, have been purging themselves of dissenters. What used to be a truly bipartisan issue, albeit with more Democratic support than Republican, is now a strictly partisan disagreement. The Supreme Court gutted the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, but it wouldn't pass again in today's Congress. The Republicans would never allow it.
Yet, since the Supreme Court gutted the bill, it doesn't really matter that our current Congress wouldn't enact it. Fixing this problem is not going to be easy. John McCain may have given up on stopping the corrupting influence of money in politics, but his partner Russ Feingold is still going strong. The path to overturn Citizens United is going to be long, but Feingold is looking to chip away at the Supreme Court's decision in any way possible. Feingold and Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock are hosting a DFA Live call on Tuesday night, May 1. Community organizers, DFA members, and concerned citizens will be able to hear about the Overturn Citizens United Campaign and ways they can get involved. Click here to sign up for the call.
I leave you with this, from Teddy Roosevelt's December 5, 1905 State of the Union address:
"All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law; directors should not be permitted to use stockholders' money for such purposes; and, moreover, a prohibition of this kind would be, as far as it went, an effective method of stopping the evils aimed at in corrupt practices acts. Not only should both the National and the several State Legislatures forbid any officer of a corporation from using the money of the corporation in or about any election, but they should also forbid such use of money in connection with any legislation save by the employment of counsel in public manner for distinctly legal services."
The Republican Party was not always the Party of Plutocrats. But that is what they are now. The Supreme Court fundamentally disagrees with Teddy Roosevelt, and so does the modern GOP. This is the second Gilded Age.
[I am a consultant for Democracy for America]