JIM LEHRER: The Senate passes McCain-Feingold, the campaign finance reform bill. The vote was 59 to 41. We have back-to-back interviews with the key players; first, the chief proponent of the legislation, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. I talked with him late this afternoon, just before the vote on final passage.
JIM LEHRER: Welcome and congratulations, senator.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Thank you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: What was your level of confidence going in to this two weeks ago?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I thought that we would be able to do this. It was not a matter of whether but it was a matter of when, because there will be more money washing around and there will be more scandals, but when we went into it, I thought it wasn’t any better than about 60/40.
JIM LEHRER: 60/40 to your side?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Yes. But I’m an optimist, as you know.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. You said here on the NewsHour in August that there would be blood on the floor of the United States Senate if you did not get your vote or, in fact, if campaign finance reform did not get through the United States Senate. Did it come to that?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think there was a realization on the part of the leadership that we had the votes to cut off debate, that we needed to take up the issue and dispose of it. And I appreciate the fact that Senator Lott was willing to schedule this. We wanted to take it up right away, as you know, but we decided to wait until now, and I’m very appreciative of the fact that Senator Daschle played such a key role in keeping the Democrats together on this.
JIM LEHRER: He did make – it was a key role, was it not, from your point of view?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: Did you make any kind of arrangement with him? Did you go to him and say "hey, look, I need you on this," or how – what was the relationship, and how did it develop?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, we have known each other since I came to the House in 1983. We have had a very friendly relationship for many years, and the only thing I ever said to him – and I said it to him a couple of times – was that, "look, I’m not going to do anything that I believe will favor one side over the other. It’s got to be fair and balanced not only in my objective – not only in my subjective view but in that of the objective observers."
JIM LEHRER: But the fact of the matter is with or without Senator Daschle’s help, more Democrats voted for this than did Republicans. Should it be seen as a Democratic helpful bill?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I think if you looked at it in the short term, that it would be more helpful to Republicans than Democrats, because the soft money we’re banning, the two parties are about equal, and in the hard money that is not being banned, Republicans gain more. But these things always have unintended consequences, and we are never sure exactly who might gain an advantage from passage of a legislation such as this. But on the surface it would be more helpful to Republicans than Democrats.
JIM LEHRER: Why then were you not able to convince more of your Republican colleagues to vote for it?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Because we’re the barely majority party; it keeps incumbents in office. You know, I’m entertained by the criticism that somehow this would harm -- or help incumbents. You can’t help incumbents more than – much more than they’ve been helped. There was only 20 or less House races that were competitive in the last election, and a few – handful of Senate races, so the present system protects incumbents, and so that was part of it, and I think also the leadership – and I’ve give them credit -- Senator Mitch McConnell against this legislation – I think helped him keep a lot of Republicans on his side.
JIM LEHRER: But you were not able to break through that argument that McConnell and the others made. Do you understand why now that it’s all over with, why you weren’t able to convince your fellow Republicans to go with you on this?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, we were able to keep a hard core there of about eight or ten, and then it got a little bit bigger on certain votes, people like Senator Lugar and Senator DeWine, and others voted with us on certain amendments, and that was very important because some of them – it was helpful to beat back some of these amendments. But it was also important to beat them back by a large number.
JIM LEHRER: Should this be seen tonight as a defeat for President Bush, because he was so opposed to what you wanted?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: No. In fact, I was pleased that the president recently said that he wanted to sign a bill when it gets to his desk. I look forward to working with him, and hopefully we can get a bill; it’s not in anybody’s interest to have a bill go through the House and the Senate and then vetoed by the president. So I think this is – I think this is a victory, but I want to emphasize, Jim, I have no illusions about the House, about a conference, about the White House. We’ve just taken the first step, and as we enjoy this moment, tomorrow we’d better fully understand that we’ve got a long way to go.
JIM LEHRER: What do you say to those who are making this out as a "McCain defeats Bush" – this is John McCain versus George W. Bush and round one goes to McCain?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I think they’re ignoring history. I’ve been involved specifically on this issue since 1987 and with Russ Feingold for the last six years. So it’s not an issue that I just thought of that I may have a disagreement with the president on. We’ve been working hard on this issue long before the president was the president -- even before he was governor, so I don’t view it that way, and I look forward to working with the president to get this bill through. Before the South Carolina primary, he agreed that we should ban union and corporation soft money, and so I look forward to working with him.
JIM LEHRER: Back to the substance of what the Senate is voting on tonight, what would you say is the single most important thing it will accomplish in and of itself, assuming that it eventually becomes law?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Banning soft money, because that’s what’s exploded into, you know, a half billion projections, high as a billion dollars, and the pernicious effects. Look, Jim, I’m the chairman of the Commerce Committee, and I oversight telecommunications issues. I call up the chairman or CEO of a large telecommunications corporation, and I say, look, "I’d like you to give several hundred thousand dollars to the Republican National Committee so that we can elect Republican senators, including me, reelect me, and I’d really like you to do that." Look, we’re removing that. Now, there will still be PAC money there; we’ve raised the individual hard money limits, but this – but this coercion that we’re able to influence by getting these huge donations now has now disappeared.
JIM LEHRER: Is it going to result in better government, better people in government? What’s going to be the end result?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I think you’ll have a much better government. There’s very few benefits of growing old, but I ran for the first time in 1982. We had much cleaner campaigns; we had grassroots campaigns; we had stronger parties than we have today, and we had a much greater approval from the American people. The ’74 reforms were pretty effective up into the 90s and then the system broke apart, as you know, and this – this fix won’t last forever. If we pass it – if we pass this reform, twenty, twenty-five years from now, there will be two crazy guys like me and Russ Feingold saying we’ve got to fix the system again.
JIM LEHRER: So how important is what you’re doing tonight?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Oh, I think it’s – it’s vital to restoring the confidence of the American people. I think it’s vital to bringing about legislation like an HMO patient’s bill of rights, prescription drug program for seniors, clean up the tax code, reform institutions of government, but it’s not perfect. People will find ways around it over time, but I think for quite a period of time it will be very helpful, and it will hopefully get young Americans involved again in the political process.
JIM LEHRER: Well, that was my final question. How does this help the average American? We know how it helps senators or doesn’t help senators. In fact, it’s been portrayed -- this debate -- over the past two weeks as kind of an in-house thing about your business, the family business. How about the other folks, the average American, how will they be affected by what you’re doing?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We’ve had lower and lower voter turnouts from young Americans between 18 and 34, and to the point where focus groups were done by the secretaries of states, the ones that run our elections in all the states in America, both Republicans and Democrats. More and more young Americans say, you don’t represent my hopes, dreams, and aspirations, and even accuse us of corruption. I think we can change that. Let me give just one example, if I could.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: David Boren, former state legislator, governor, senator, now president of the University of Oklahoma, introduced me a few weeks ago to 2,000 students at the University of Oklahoma in a campaign finance reform town hall meeting. He said, in 1961, when he first ran for the state legislature, Time Magazine asked a question of the American people they’ve been asking every year since. The question was: "Do you trust your government to do the right thing?" In 1961, 76 percent of the American people answered in the affirmative; this year, 19 percent of the American people answered in the affirmative. I think we can turn some of that around.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Senator, again, congratulations, and thank you.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Thank you, Jim.