The Leadership of a Moderate Republican in the Senate
GOV 230: The Congress
November 30, 2005
John McCain is a Republican Senator from Arizona with a lengthy and multifaceted legislative career. He is also a Vietnam War veteran who suffered for five and a half years as a prisoner of war, so his military heroism has in many ways defined his home style among his constituents. As a Senator, McCain's independent streak and moderate positions have reshaped his reputation substantially. In fact, his ability to maintain a solid voter base among Arizonan Republicans while regularly breaking with Republicans on key policy issues is one of the most remarkable aspects of his career. Reelection is not everything, however. As his career in the Senate matured in the late 1990's, the failure of his tobacco regulation bill and, more importantly, the killing of his campaign finance reform bill seemed to indicate a real weakness in McCain's legislative leadership. But his campaign for President in 2000, though unsuccessful, greatly increased his prowess nationally; and, by 2001, he was able to skillfully gain the votes necessary to pass his beloved campaign finance reform, which was signed in 2002. After being reelected in 2004 to his fourth term, he continued to influence the Senate as a moderate negotiator. It seems that McCain has built a successful legislative career on his personal background, media popularity, and political skill, while he has suffered somewhat from his infrequent opposition to the Republican agenda.
The life of John McCain must be understood in light of the accomplishments of his father and grandfather. McCain was born John Sidney McCain III in 1935 to John McCain Jr., known as "Jack" (Alexander 2003, 12). Both Jack and his father, "Slew," attended the Naval Academy, became Commanders in the Navy, and fought for the United States in World War II (McCain and Salter 1999). Jack also served in the Vietnam War as the Commander in Chief of the Pacific forces. Senator McCain now calls his father and grandfather "my first heroes," and he says that "earning their respect has been the most lasting ambition of my life" (McCain and Salter 1999). It is clear that the McCain family legacy had a huge impact on McCain both personally and politically.
As might be expected, John McCain III was expected to carry on the family tradition (Dorland 2001, 165) and it never even occurred to him that he might not enter the navy (Alexander 2003, 18). Military life defined his childhood and dominated his educational pursuits. After graduating from the Naval Academy and then flight school, McCain entered the Vietnam War in 1966 and flew an A-4 bomber on combat missions (McCain and Salter 1999). Tragedy struck in October 1967 when his plane was shot down by an enemy surface-to-air missile and he was captured by Vietnamese. After five years of torture and months of solitary confinement, McCain sustained numerous permanent injuries including a loss of mobility in his arms and leg that is visible to this day (McCain and Salter 1999, 345). In perhaps the most heroic act of his time as a prisoner of war, McCain refused an offer to be released and sent home because he knew that the Vietnamese intended to use his release as propaganda for their side; this decision resulted in the worst year and a half of his time there (Alexander 2003, 58). McCain said later of his experiences: "Surviving my imprisonment strengthened my self-confidence, and my refusal of early release taught me to trust my own judgment."
The 1970's were difficult for John McCain. After receiving the honors due to his heroism, he spent the next few years writing, studying at the National War College, undergoing multiple operations and physical therapy, and dealing with the physical ailments of his wife, Carol. (Alexander 2003). Problems with the marriage escalated as McCain committed adultery, and in 1979 McCain met and fell in love with Cindy Hensley. After divorcing Carol and marrying Cindy in early 1980, he decided to retire from the navy and move to Cindy's home state, Arizona (Alexander 2003). He was introduced to politics through his assignment to the navy's liaison office in the United States Senate, and he was led to Arizona by his ambition (McCain and Salter 2002). Elected to the House in 1982, and reelected in 1984, McCain was introduced to political life, and he found it satisfactory. When Barry Goldwater retired from the Senate in 1986, he won the vacated seat and has held it ever since.
John McCain's personal history forms a necessary background to his political success primarily because his life before politics has in many ways defined his home style (Fenno 1977). Unlike some politicians, who grow up in the community they represent, McCain could not portray himself as a fellow Arizonan. But the mobility of military life was very understandable to his constituents, and he could easily present himself as a fellow American. In fact, it was his devotion to his country that he relied upon most of all to endear himself to the people of Arizona. Military heroism was a family tradition and he capitalized on the wonder and respect engendered by his sacrifices for the United States abroad.
In analyzing his home style, it is important to recognize who his constituents actually were. As a state, Arizona has a long history of attracting people from all over America to start a new life. It also has attracted many military servicemen, both those retired and those serving in the various air force and naval bases found in Arizona. One example of this is my father, a retired Navy sailor who moved to Arizona in the 1970's because of the favorable climate and stable economy. Most of these veterans and servicemen approached politics from a conservative viewpoint. They saw the military as a top priority for government, and were less interested in domestic programs (unless they related to the welfare of veterans). Thus, most were Republicans. In fact, Arizona was traditionally Republican since it was populated by a large number of Mormons, and the state party held Barry Goldwater as their flag bearer. Furthermore, the entire nation was solidly behind the conservative Republican president, Ronald Reagan, as he had taken office just two years before McCain entered Congress.
It is no surprise, then, that John McCain ran as a Republican. His personal experience matched very closely with people like my father and a certain bond of trust was formed as McCain campaigned. As he walked from house to house in the East Valley in 1982, McCain presented himself as a very conservative war hero and the very conservative audience was receptive. On policy, McCain lined up very well with the Republicans. He was pro-life, anti-gun control, and of course, pro-military. But his policy views were not as important as the fact that he was a Republican and a war hero. After barely winning the primary as the underdog candidate (Alexander 2003, 96), McCain coasted into office in the heavily Republican district.
McCain was not without support financially either. When he met a local home builder named Charles Keating in 1981 at a speaking engagement, McCain was very happy to receive his support. Keating raised $100,000 for each of McCain's first three campaigns, and the two became friends (McCain and Salter 2002, 59). McCain would later regret his close association with Keating when he became the central figure in a notorious savings-and-loan scandal in 1989. Not only did the collapse of Keating's business result in over two billion dollars of taxpayer money lost, Keating was convicted of fraud and racketeering (Thompson 1993). More importantly for McCain, however, was the fact that he, along with four other senators, had met with and questioned the regulators in charge of investigating Keating. The chief regulator, Edwin Gray, felt intimidated by this "show of force" and it appeared that the Senators were improperly furthering Keating's criminal activities because he had contributed to their campaigns (Thompson 1993). Thankfully for McCain, the Senate Ethics Committee simply rebuked his poor judgment and the episode did very little to damage his career as evidenced by his overwhelming reelection in 1992.
Dennis Thompson used the Keating scandal in an article in the American Political Science Review to argue that the nature of corruption in the United States government had changed such that the extent to which the democratic process was damaged by an incident must now be the central criteria for determining corruption (Thompson 1993). Instead of focusing only on individual actors and their motives, the system as a whole has to be taken into consideration when deciding whether behavior is improper. This theory is called "mediated corruption" and Thompson did not see campaign finance reform as sufficient to end this kind of corruption since it focuses on money alone and ignores the ambition and misplaced duty often involved. McCain, on the other hand, saw campaign finance reform as the single best solution to corruption.
Though McCain was absolved by the Senate Ethics Committee, the episode embarrassed him. To clear his name, he decided to return to the United States Treasury a sum of money equal to the amount Keating had contributed to his campaigns, and he promised never to meet with a regulator again (Alexander 2003, 143). He also took on a new signature issue for his 1992 reelection, campaign finance reform. It was not the first time he had dealt with the issue. He had joined Senators McConnell and Packwood in offering an alternative to the sweeping Democratic reform proposal in 1987 (Washington Post 1987). But his new bill would be much more comprehensive and controversial.
John McCain was a Republican, but early on he showed that he was no ordinary party-liner. As early as 1983, McCain broke with the Reagan administration on keeping Marines in Lebanon; he indicated support for cutting Reagan's defense budget in 1985 (Rogers 1985); and he opposed Reagan's cutting of the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance program in 1987 (Blustein 1987). Biographer Paul Alexander argues that McCain drifted toward the middle of the political spectrum throughout the 1980's, becoming more moderate on social issues while remaining fiscally conservative (2003, 149-150). This explanation seems plausible.
For the most part, however, John McCain supported the Republicans in his early years. He supported President Reagan and his agenda during his first term in the House (Alexander 2003, 99), and he campaigned for George Bush in 1988 (Alexander 2003, 116-124). In fact it was the 1988 election that, according to Alexander, launched him into prominence. He gave a powerful speech at the Republican Convention that included a moving anecdote about his POW experience. Although it did not earn him the Vice Presidency, as he had hoped, he was immediately recognized as a rising leader on the national stage (Alexander 2003, 119-122).
Senators generally have three primary goals: reelection, good public policy, and increased power and influence. McCain's goals follow close in line with these. First, he wants to be reelected. Like any other politician, he must garner support at the end of his term from the voters in his constituency. Early in his career, McCain won by near-landslides because of the dominance of Republicans in Arizona in the 1980's. But throughout the 1990's, Arizona has become more moderate as more people stream into the state from California and elsewhere. McCain has adjusted well to this shift, staking out a stance independent enough from the Republicans to appease the moderates, and yet supportive enough of Republicans to maintain, for the most part, the support of conservatives. The future of this kind of moderate position is unclear, however, and deserves further discussion.
Another important objective for McCain is good public policy. McCain has become known for two main issues: campaign finance reform, and responsible spending for the public good. The two issues are distinct, but very closely related, as McCain argues that corruption pervades the Senate in the form of pork-barrel spending motivated by large campaign contributions. To alleviate at least the appearance of this corruption, McCain has advocated reforming campaign financing regulations so that Senators cannot be bought; and, on the other hand, McCain seeks to expose and counter the common use of targeted earmarks on omnibus appropriations bills so that taxpayer dollars are more wisely spent. Both of these positions have made him unpopular with the establishment in the Senate. Campaign finance reform has been opposed, especially by Republicans, because it could hurt the parties' ability to raise funds; and McCain's hostility to pork barrel spending has been attacked presumably because many Senators rely upon it to get reelected. The unpopularity of his policy objectives among Senators has resulted in many years of frustration for him as many of his bills have failed.
The third and final objective of McCain's political career corresponds to increased power and influence, but it is more specific. McCain wants to be President. He wanted to be Bush's Vice President in 1988, as was documented above; and despite his unpopularity with the Republican establishment, he fought a tough campaign in 2000 for the Republican Presidential nomination. His actions in the Senate must be taken in light of this goal, as he clearly seeks to gain a national following apart from his role in Congress's, often purely partisan, policymaking. McCain has found the media to be helpful in this regard. Because journalists are interested in controversy, McCain's antiestablishment tendencies are given much press. Furthermore, he has gone above and beyond the average politician to court the press's favor, especially in his campaign for President. In that campaign, he rode a bus called "Straight Talk Express" and invited reporters to come aboard and get a sample of his "straight talk" (Johnson 2002). But as popular as he was with the media, and with many moderate Americans, he eventually was shadowed by the Republican Party's favored son, George W. Bush. John McCain's presidential aspirations did not die in 2000, however. While he rejected John Kerry's invitation to join the Democratic ticket in 2004, he seems to have his eyes set on 2008.
McCain has been reelected five times and his now twenty-three year old career will continue at least until 2010. His goal to become President may still be realized. But how well has John McCain been able to promote good public policy, his second goal? This question is answered through an examination of his legislative leadership abilities in the Senate, both in his early failures and in his later successes.
The elections of 1994 turned out well for Republicans, and John McCain gained power as they took the majority. Appointed chairman of the Commerce Committee, he began working with both parties to accomplish important policy objectives. His priorities, of course, were campaign finance reform and ending pork barrel spending.
The first main test of his leadership abilities started in 1995 when Senate majority leader Trent Lott asked him to write legislation that would enact into federal law provisions of a settlement made by various states against tobacco companies (McCain and Salter 2002, 363). The tobacco bill was an opportunity for McCain to broker compromises between Democrats and Republicans since many Senators on both sides, at least initially, supported it. Unfortunately for McCain, however, he miscalculated the political realities of the situation. He worked hard to draft a policy that won the support of all but one of the Commerce Committee members, which included taxing tobacco at $1.10 per pack (Torry and Dewar 1998). When the committee passed it overwhelmingly, McCain was so excited that he said, "I was starting to think that maybe I could be president, or at least that I should try" (McCain and Salter 2002). However, the penalty was larger than the settlement had required and so the tobacco industry launched a public relations effort aimed at killing the bill. When the bill finally reached the floor in 1998, the Republican leadership, whose campaign ads were paid for by the tobacco companies, threatened a filibuster. Not enough votes could be found to end debate even though a majority of the Senate supported it. This made McCain extremely angry, and it was formative in his decision to run for President. He recalls his final speech on the Senate floor:
I was just angry, and I expressed it at length, suggesting near the end of my remarks that perhaps the health of children should be a greater concern to my party. When I finished, every Democrat on the floor rose to applaud me, the only standing ovation I've ever received in a Senate debate. Not a single Republican joined in the tribute. (McCain and Salter 2002, 365)
But the failure of the tobacco bill would not be McCain's low point. Though protecting children from tobacco was important to him, it was not his primary issue. Ever since the Keating scandal and his 1992 reelection, McCain was focused primarily on campaign finance reform. In 1994, he sought a fellow reformer on the Democrat side, and he found an ally in Russell Feingold. Though they are on opposite sides of most issues, McCain and Feingold joined together to fight both the appropriations earmarks that represented irresponsible spending and the unregulated contributions that represented corruption in Congressional politics (McCain and Salter 2002, 358-361).
A lot had changed since the 1987 campaign reform bill. Though McCain had sponsored that bill as counter to a Democratic proposal for public financing of elections, many of the early McCain-Feingold bills included elements of public financing of elections. One other important contrast can be made. While the 1987 bill McCain supported was championed by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, McConnell became McCain's chief nemesis in the campaign finance debate of the late 1990's (McCain and Salter 2002, 361).
From 1997 to 1999, the McCain-Feingold bill was thwarted time and time again by Senate procedural votes and McCain was unable to muster the necessary 60 votes. A weaker form of the bill was presented in the late 1999 session, sandwiched between two other highly inflammatory bills – the nuclear test ban treaty and the partial birth abortion ban. This was McCain's last chance to pass his bill before the 2000 elections and his presidential campaign was already in full swing. The bill ended the soft-money loophole that had become synonymous with corruption for McCain because it allowed corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to parties. Since the parties were using the money to promote their candidates, McCain saw a linkage between these donations and pork-barrel spending that benefited the corporations later. But McConnell and many other conservatives saw the bill as a limit on free speech. They attacked McCain's claims of corruption in the middle of the debate and asked him to back up the statements he had made on his website that particular Senators had misused public funds to benefit their supporters. The debate became emotionally charged, "reflected personal animus toward McCain," and diverted from the real issue, according to political scientist Roger Davidson (Davidson 2001). After debate ended, a partisan cloture vote failed since the forty-five Democrats were joined by only seven Republicans. Thus the bill was killed, and McCain took down the offending references on his website. It seemed that he had failed.
John McCain did not give up. His presidential campaign made campaign finance reform the number one issue, and he was successful in raising the public's awareness of its importance. When Bush took office, McCain met with him to try to head off a possible future veto and was somewhat encouraged by Bush's disposition toward the issue (Drew 2002, 17). It was his meeting with Majority Leader Trent Lott, however, that resulted in a promise for two weeks of debate on the bill in March 2001 (Drew 2002, 20). The new McCain-Feingold included a ban on electioneering ads within sixty days of an election, a highly controversial provision that many thought was unconstitutional. McCain also wanted to raise the limits on individual hard money contributions from one thousand to two thousand dollars, but it took quite a bit of negotiating with Feingold and the Democrats to get them to back this idea (Drew 2002, 43). Eventually, the provision was included and the Senate passed the bill.
There are two important strategic reasons that McCain-Feingold finally passed the Senate. First, McCain prepared himself emotionally for the debate; and he surrounded himself with supporters so that it was not a one man fight. Second, McCain ingeniously used Senate floor strategy to manage the negotiations of ever-shifting coalitions.
McCain learned his lesson in 1999 and his strategy changed. He puts it this way: "I'm not going to let them pull me into a personal combat. That was my worst test. I'm not going to engage in that again" (Drew 2002, 3). While a certain amount of tenacity was required to "shake things up in Washington" as he had promised to do in his presidential campaign, he could not stand against his party any longer. The 2000 elections had proven the Republicans' strength, and so he had to avoid "antagonizing Republicans who [hadn't] supported reform before but who might come over to his side" (Drew 2002, 30). Thus, he formed a coalition of twelve of the bill's strongest backers and divided the workload of the debate among them.
Secondly, McCain skillfully used amendment strategy to keep the maximum number of Senators behind his bill. The best example of this is with the issue of raising hard money limits. Republican Fred Thompson, a strong supporter of the bill, proposed an amendment to raise the limits to three thousand dollars, and Democrat Dianne Feinstein proposed a two thousand dollar limit. The Democrats, represented by Daschle, agreed to support Feinstein's amendment but that was as high as they wanted to go. McCain, along with his close aide, Mark Buse, came up with a strategy. They would let both amendments be put to a tabling vote, but they would make sure both amendments failed. If Feinstein's amendment had been tabled, the Democrats would have bolted, but McCain urged Republicans not to table Feinstein's amendment. This triggered a lengthy negotiation between the two proposals, and the compromise was a huge success – it passed 84 to 16 (Drew 2002, 55-57). This was a fine example of the type of powerful leadership McCain was finally able to gain.
The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 was signed by President Bush and survived a Supreme Court challenge in McConnell v. FEC. McCain continues to fight with the Federal Election Commission over enforcement of the ban on soft money, especially with the rise of 527 organizations in the 2004 election. But the act's passage is monumental for McCain's career, as it represents his first major legislative success. Further examples of McCain's influence recently include his leadership over a bipartisan group of seven Republicans and seven Democrats who struck a deal to end the filibuster of several of Bush's judicial nominees earlier this year (Continetti 2005), and his "little triumvirate" with Senators Warner and Graham which has become "a powerful political force at a time when President Bush's popularity is sinking" (Stolberg 2005).
John McCain's recent successes have not been entirely positive for his reputation among his constituency, however. In fact, many conservative Republicans in Arizona are largely skeptical about McCain's commitment to their values and only reluctantly voted for him in 2004 when no challenger stepped forward. At the same time, however, the end of campaign finance reform may have been the beginning of a new John McCain. My father, despite having voted for him in every election since 1982, had been questioning whether McCain represented his viewpoints until just recently. As a grassroots leader, he attended an event where McCain spoke and was very impressed with how conservative he seemed. Perhaps McCain is attempting to shed the "maverick" label and return to his traditional conservative war hero image, or maybe he never lost that image among his constituency, and now he is able to downplay his independent streak more convincingly since he no longer has an unpopular crusade to carry out.
The future of McCain and moderates like him is unclear. For a while, it seemed like the Republicans were going to dominate as they maintained control of Congress and Bush was reelected. But the difficult Iraq war and domestic issues like Hurricane Katrina have made Bush and the Republicans quite unpopular. Since Democrats seem unable to present a coherent platform of their own, it may be the time for moderates like McCain to step in and make things happen. However, the partisanship of both houses of Congress has continued to increase, so it seems unlikely that the polarizing debate will be significantly moderated. If McCain can continue to form coalitions between Democrats and moderate Republicans, it is possible that he could repeat the success of 2001. But even if he cannot, his career may be on the upswing as a vacated White House looms large in his horizon.
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