The expected entry of former Sen. Fred Thompson in the Republican primary could shed some light on whether it's the law or McCain who's really bugging them. Thompson not only voted for the law, he spent two hours behind closed doors with California Democrat Dianne Feinstein negotiating a key compromise on the $2,300 individual donation limit that is widely credited with paving the way for the bill's final passage. "We got a deal," Thompson said after that meeting in 2001.
Indeed, his role in pushing the bill through the Senate was so significant that there was a moment when his name was invoked in news articles alongside its two chief sponsors, McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). The question now is whether Thompson will feel the burden of the reform law as heavily as McCain. An initial survey of some of the Republican-leaning groups opposed to it suggests he won't, and that speaks volumes about the underlying resistance among conservatives to McCain's candidacy.
The 2001 fight over the McCain-Feingold law was a grueling one that produced a rare alliance between conservative groups such as the Family Research Council and the liberal American Civil Liberties Union. Their gripe was with a provision that banned advertising by outside groups in the month before a primary and two months before the general election. The provision was intended to crack down on attack ads sponsored by sometimes inscrutable financial backers. Long-standing advocacy groups, however, saw it as an infringement on their free speech rights that denied them a chance to run ads even on an issue before Congress during those periods lest they risk breaking the law.
The U.S. Supreme Court didn't warm to those arguments, and it upheld the law and the advertising blackout periods. The provision is still facing legal challenges and the high court -- with its new Bush appointees -- is expected to issue a new ruling on the advertising plank soon.
But even if the activist community wins this time, it's likely it will still chafe at McCain's decision to use his clout to push the law through Congress in the first place. And since its passage, opposition to the law among Republicans has spread beyond the activist groups hungry to run advertisements during campaign seasons.
In February, the California state party convened a training session for newly elected county treasurers in Sacramento to go over reporting requirements under McCain-Feingold. Many were shocked to discover they could face jail time if their records were incorrect. "They were coming out of their chairs yelling at the state treasurer," recalled one participant. "McCain's name was used, liberally, in vain that day."
McCain offers no regrets for his work on the legislation. "John McCain has always been a leader in trying to reduce the influence of special-interest money in Washington, D.C., politics," said spokesman Matt David.
Thompson has recently distanced himself somewhat from the legislation he worked so hard to pass in 2001. He told The Wall Street Journal's editorial page writer John Fund that the law has been shot through with loopholes and didn't have the reforming impact lawmakers thought it would.
The fact that he's being asked about his role in passing the law means Thompson isn't likely to get a free pass. Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs at the Family Research Council, predicts that he will "definitely get a number of questions when he meets one on one with conservative groups." But he adds, "It's less of a stigma with him since McCain-Feingold isn't named Thompson-Feingold. McCain liked it so much, he put his name on it."
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Asociation, another opponent of the law, offers a similar analysis of how that group may weigh the candidates' credentials.
The gentle hit Thompson gets on an issue that makes McCain untenable suggests more is afoot here -- and more is. The Arizona senator's penchant for working with Democrats and his occasional wanderings away from conservative dogma make the sin of the reform law all the more damning.
In 2002, Thompson's rating with the Family Research Council was 78 percent, an average dragged down by his support for the campaign finance bill and opposition to an amendment on teaching evolution. That same year, McCain's rating was 67 percent. He scored lower after supporting the campaign finance bill, opposing a permanent repeal of the estate tax and voting to end debate on a measure banning patenting of human clones. "He had a hat trick that year for upsetting everybody," McClusky said.
McCain's NRA scores aren't much prettier. In the late 1990s, Thompson and McCain both received top scores from the gun rights group. Then, in 2000, McCain "started flirting with gun control," Arulanandam said, and his grade dropped from an A to a C. He proposed background checks for gun show sales that lasted longer than the events and cut ads for Americans for Gun Safety.
Since then, McCain has come back to the NRA fold, but memories run deep in the activist world. Arulanandam says the NRA will evaluate "their past, their present and also their future" when considering who to back in the 2008 presidential election.
Pit Boss is a weekly column that explores the intersection of lobbying and politics. Please send any tips for tracking Washington's most lucrative industry to firstname.lastname@example.org.