04/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How McCain Backpedaled On Public Financing

By the summer of 2002, Sen. John McCain was already considered one of the most prominent advocates for campaign finance reform. He had made reducing the influence of moneyed interests in politics a central component of his 2000 run for the White House. And, for years, he had championed groundbreaking campaign finance legislation alongside Wisconsin Democrat, Sen. Russ Feingold.

That June, however, McCain took an additional step that further bolstered his reputation within the good-government community. He declared on NOW! With Bill Moyers that he thought Arizona's four-year old Clean Elections law, which provided full public financing for state campaigns, could "absolutely" serve as a model for the nation as a whole. And then he cut a series of public service announcements advocating on the law's behalf.

"For years, special interests and big money have had a negative influence on our local, state and national elections," the advertisements, which appeared on Phoenix and Tucson television and radio stations, read. "Clean Elections changes that. In 1998, you voted for the Clean Elections Act and restored voter confidence in the electoral process."

Six years later, McCain no longer holds Arizona's law in such high regard. The presumptive GOP presidential nominee rarely, if ever, discusses the issue on the trail. And when asked before the New Hampshire primary whether he still thought his home state's election-finance system made national sense, he said "no."

"I don't think that that's what we want to do," McCain told Jacob Soboroff of www.whytuesday.org. "I think we ought to let BCRA [Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act] plays out first." (The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as McCain-Feingold, bans big-money donations by labor unions, corporations, and individuals).

McCain's shift on Arizona's Clean Elections law does not necessarily mean that he no longer believes in the efficacy of the legislation. After all, the Arizona Republican continues to talk -- sometimes ad nauseum -- about his broader efforts in combating special interests.

However, some critics and open-government advocates see McCain's backpedaling on Arizona's public financing system as indicative of a much broader change: the senator is gradually abandoning his leadership on the issue that once was the core to his political being.

"I'd love to see him come out and support it and focus attention on it," said Eric Ehst, executive director of The Clean Elections Institute, an Arizona advocacy organization that pushed for the law. "But he is doing the reality of what he needs to do to win the Republican base and become the nominee. We expected him to totally ignore the topic of campaign finance reform and I doubt he will change much during the general election..."

It is not as if Arizona's law no longer works. Officials throughout the state have used full public funding (which comes from various revenue sources) to catapult their political careers. The governor, secretary of state and attorney general have all been elected twice while operating in the system (which restricts how much a candidate can spend).

Nor, for that matter, is McCain's opposition to nationalizing Arizona's public financing law a strictly hypothetical position. Sens. Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter recently introduced the Fair Elections Now Act, a piece of public financing legislation that, with adaptations for national elections, is quite similar to the Arizona effort. Eight Senators have signed on to the bill as co-sponsors. McCain is not one of them.

For his part, McCain's campaign has argued that it would be inappropriate for him to advocate for public financing because he could wind up benefiting from the program.

But there are serious questions about how and whether McCain will use public funds. As the Boston Globe reported, "[D]uring 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."

In fact, according to the chairman of the FEC, David Mason, McCain is still in the public financing system.

Moreover, several congressional aides have told the Huffington Post that, if the Arizona Republican had his way, he wouldn't touch a piece of public financing legislation until after the election.

Indeed, as he has sought to navigate his way into the heart of conservative circles, McCain has softened his approach on a number of his once-core issues. And on Monday, Public Campaign Action Fund, an organization committed to reforming campaign finance laws, called him out for backpedaling, penning a petition letter for voters to sign.

"As John McCain embarks on his national Fundraising Tour," said David Donnelly, National Campaigns Director, Public Campaign Action Fund, "real questions have been raised about his commitment to support comprehensive change in the way elections are financed. Americans are looking for bold leadership on this issue, and we're going to hold McCain accountable on whether or not he makes passing full public financing of all federal elections a priority."