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Judy’s Notebook: Returning to John McCain

When I interviewed the senior senator from Arizona last week, I was struck again by how much he still cares about getting money out of politics. So much so, I decided to highlight what he said – again.

For all the attention Sen. McCain has won over the years, first for his bravery as a Vietnam POW, later for his maverick Republican ways, and most recently for his controversial pick of Sarah Palin to be his 2008 vice presidential running mate, it’s been his espousal of campaign finance reform that has the potential to transform American politics.

So far, the emphasis has to be on “potential,” because most of the effects of the McCain-Feingold reform law, passed in 2002, have been undermined by congressional naysayers and an activist Supreme Court majority, powerful forces bent on maximizing the ability of individuals and corporations to spend as much money as they wish to effect change in Washington. Today, money may be the single most distinctive and influential agent in our political system. It doesn’t always determine the outcome, but it forces the players to take positions that shape future votes they cast.

Money also keeps lawmakers who aren’t independently wealthy “in their place,” reminding them that their political survival depends less on studying legislation or talking to constituents than it does on pleasing deep-pocketed donors with specific wish lists.

The free speech argument, made this week by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – and by five justices of the Supreme Court in their 2010 Citizens United ruling – is that Americans should be allowed to spend as much as they want to advance their beliefs, and in the spirit of the First Amendment, that “money equals speech.” They argue that curbing spending in pursuit of a political end is as unconstitutional as limiting the right to free speech.

McCain told me in our interview that he wishes just one of the justices who voted against the law that bears his name had “run for county sheriff.” He called them naïve about the way American politics works, unappreciative of the corrupting influence that money has on elections. And he caught my attention further by questioning whether the giant checks written by Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson skirt the edges of the law. Because Adelson owns casinos in the Chinese colony of Macau, McCain asked if his contributions actually include foreign money – which, if true, would be against the law.

In later interviews on the subject, McCain chose to downplay this comment, suggesting there is plenty else to focus on, but he had again demonstrated his willingness to challenge Republican party orthodoxy on this topic.

Finally, in noting the distorting effects money can have, not just in the presidential campaign but in low-profile House and Senate races where an unknown and unqualified candidate with enough money can vault into first place, the senator singled out a little-noticed but consequential effect of the new interpretations of the finance laws. McCain may not have won the White House, but he is trying to hold his place – some would say his legacy – in shaping this crucial feature of American public life.

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