A victory full of defeat

John McCain is a saint -- the patron saint of America's lost causes. A quarter century ago, he spent seven years in a Hanoi prison, enduring torture and deprivation in the only war the United States ever lost. But he never said we didn't belong there. Then, last year, he battled for the Republican nomination for president, naively believing that "straight talk" and past honor could defeat big money and his party's thirst for victory at any cost. And even after the Arizona senator lost to George W. Bush, he still stood by the man who personified the very ills that he had campaigned against.

A week ago McCain's sainted star shone again. With the passage of his campaign-finance reform bill in the Senate, he reached a milestone in his six-year quest to salvage America's political soul. But though he claimed moral victory, McCain's honorable triumph, once more, is illusory. It's destined to be just another lost cause.

McCain always has been correct in his view that big, unrestricted donations have corrupted the political system to the breaking point. For years, he and a few of his high-minded colleagues have offered lawmakers a chance to clean up the morass created in 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress could restrict campaign donations but not campaign spending. Since then, the dollar chase has grown more intense, leading to the staggering amounts of "soft money" raised outside the limits of fund-raising law.

But McCain and his bill's co-author, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, could never muster the votes needed in the upper house to change that fact. That is, until this year, when the public's rising disgust and the Senate's changing balance of power combined to open the door on which McCain had pounded for so long. Even so, he had to water down his bill so much that it's far from the reform measure he first intended.

In fact, with court challenges likely to strike any number of the bill's provisions, what remains of McCain's half-empty cup -- if passed by the lower house and signed by the president -- actually might move campaign-finance reform backward, proving once again that in the strange public career of John McCain, no good deed goes unpunished.

Here's why: One provision of the "new" bill increases the amount of "hard money" a donor can give a candidate for Congress from $1,000 to $2,000 per election cycle. (If the candidate has a primary, the amount can double.) Another provision increases the total amount anyone can give to all candidates and political parties from $50,000 to $75,000 per two-year cycle (indexed for inflation). This should put about $200 million more -- not less -- into the system each year.

It was this capitulation to frightened incumbents that caused Public Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group that previously backed the McCain-Feingold bill, to turn away in outrage, even though the bill still does outlaw soft-money donations from corporations, unions and others to political parties -- an amount that reached $750 million in the 2000 election season.

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Where will that half-billion-dollar or so difference go? Will it stay out of the system, cleansing it of at least some of the special-interest excess McCain is trying to protect us from? Hardly, say the bill's critics, who hail from both the left and the right. Instead of political parties, that money likely will go to "independent" groups, such as the Club for Growth, which bankrolled Ric Keller's recent campaign for Congress. It's expected these groups will continue the barrage of attack and advocacy ads that suck up so much of the money spent in campaigns.

So there is likely to be no less money in American politics -- just different channels into which it flows. If McCain's past karma presages future events, his bill actually may increase political spending while lowering the level of required disclosure for advertisements. The newly marginalized political parties will find ways to get around the new restrictions, and life will go on as usual.

It's the continuing tragedy of McCain's honorable intentions. He suffered for Vietnam but never repudiated the war as a costly policy mistake. He was trashed by Bush but refused to sever his ties to the Republicans who wanted him to walk the plank. He understands the need for campaign-finance reform but would rather exult in the Pyrrhic victory of a bad bill than accept the reality that public financing is the only viable answer to his long-held dream of cleaning up the system.

John McCain is a saint. What he needs to be, though, is more of a son-of-a-bitch.

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