WASHINGTON - Senator John McCain has retreated from his longtime commitment to public financing of campaigns since he started planning his 2008 bid for the presidency, according to nonpartisan advocates who had hoped McCain would be a strong voice for reform during the most expensive presidential campaign in history.
McCain, who angered conservatives when he coauthored a bipartisan law aimed at taking big money out of politics, in 2003 cosponsored legislation to expand the federal matching system to help fund presidential campaigns, but failed to add his name to similar measures in 2006 and 2007. And while McCain once supported a law in his home state of Arizona providing full public financing of campaigns, he now says he opposes that idea at the federal level.
McCain's campaign said the presumptive Republican nominee, who completed a fund-raising swing through western states Friday, has "a clear and long record" of supporting campaign finance reform, and has not recently advocated an expansion of public financing because it would be inappropriate for him to take a lead role in increasing funding for a program from which he could benefit.
But campaign finance reform advocates say they are distressed at what they see as McCain's abandonment of the issue at a time when supporters of reform most need bipartisan backing of efforts to control the influence of money in campaigns.
"Clearly, McCain has worked hard for a number of reforms, most notably BCRA" - the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that bans big-money donations by labor unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals, said Arn Pearson, vice president for programs at Common Cause, an advocacy group. But "since he's decided to be a presidential candidate, he has backed off on taking public positions on those issues," imperiling reform efforts on Capitol Hill, Pearson said.
David Donnelly, national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund, added, "It's a legitimate question to ask the reformer, John McCain, why hasn't he made public financing the policy he will pursue if he becomes president?"
McCain is a hero to many campaign finance reform advocates, but has come under criticism recently for his wavering on accepting public financing this year. During the Republican primaries, McCain took out a $4 million line of credit for his then-flagging campaign, using the promise of federal matching funds as collateral. But after his candidacy rebounded, he never actually accepted the federal funds, allowing him to raise and spend more private money.
Both Democratic contenders, who have vastly out-raised McCain so far, have declined federal matching funds for the primaries. Senator Hillary Clinton has said she will not accept public funds for the general election. Senator Barack Obama, who earlier pledged to accept public financing for the fall campaign if the Republican nominee did, has been less clear, saying he would negotiate with McCain in deciding whether to accept the money and spending limits of the federal matching funds system. It would provide about $85 million to each major-party candidate, but would bar them from raising private money.
Several advocates of campaign finance reform were reluctant to speak publicly about McCain, noting that they strive to stay out of electoral politics and do not endorse candidates. But they echoed Democratic speculation that McCain, who ran unsuccessfully as a maverick Republican candidate in 2000, may be distancing himself from controversial reform issues to placate the conservative wing of his party.
"It's real clear that he's running as fast as he can, as hard as he can, from the campaign finance issue to appease conservatives," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic consultant not affiliated with a presidential candidate.
Campaign finance specialists point to an evolution in McCain's support for both the federal presidential matching fund program and for broader public financing of campaigns. In 1988, McCain spoke against public financing of campaigns, and wondered aloud during a floor debate on campaign finance reform how much taxpayer money was wasted on subsidizing losing presidential bids.
In 1995, McCain voted to eliminate the public financing system that gives matching funds to presidential campaigns. But by 2003, McCain, having won presidential approval the year before of his sweeping campaign finance reform bill, was supportive of the public matching funds system, and co-sponsored a bill to fix the program.
The measure, backed by nonpartisan reform advocates, would increase the federal match for presidential candidates and reward contenders who attract small donations. The bill would also tighten the eligibility threshold for presidential candidates, an effort to keep federal dollars from going to "fringe" candidates.
But in 2006 and 2007, McCain declined to cosponsor similar bills. Obama was an original cosponsor of the recent bill, and Clinton later added her name as one of seven cosponsors as of late January. The current version, which was introduced in December, has stalled in Congress with no hearings or votes scheduled.
Brooke Buchanan, a McCain spokeswoman, said the Arizona senator "supports in general the concept of a matching fund financing system for the presidency, but believes the current system - in place since 1976 - is outdated and needs to be updated and reformed." He did not cosponsor the most recent bills, she said, because he "was actively contemplating and/or seeking the nomination of his party and was viewed as a potential recipient of matching funds."
McCain has also been very supportive of a 1998 Arizona law providing broad public financing of state campaigns. He did a public service announcement in 2002 for the law, and the same year told PBS host Bill Moyers that the law "absolutely" could become a model for the nation as a whole.But in 2007, McCain declined to add his name to a bill, modeled after the Arizona law, to fund congressional campaigns. Further, he told an interviewer last year, in a New Hampshire exchange captured on YouTube, that he would not back a federal public financing law based on the Arizona plan.
Nick Nyhart, president of Public Campaign, a citizens advocacy group, said reformers were baffled by McCain's failure to take a lead role in pushing the recent campaign finance bills in Congress.
"He's been a strong supporter" of such laws in the past, but right now, he's not extending that support to the federal level. I would leave it to his campaign to give an explanation for that," Nyhart said.