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Joint Bradley/McCain Press Conference Highlights Growing Influence of Campaign Finance Reform Issue in Presidential Campaign

Dec. 15, 1999

Contact: Steve Weissman (202) 454-5182

Joint Bradley/McCain Press Conference Highlights Growing Influence of Campaign Finance Reform Issue in Presidential Campaign

On Thursday, Dec. 16, major presidential contenders Sen. John McCain, a Republican, and former Sen. Bill Bradley, a Democrat, will make a joint appearance in Claremont, New Hampshire. There, they are expected to mutually renounce party soft money should they win their parties? nominations. At the site where President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995 shook hands pledging to work together to achieve bipartisan campaign finance reform, McCain and Bradley will try to redeem that broken promise.

This event is of enormous political significance because it is no accident. Two candidates, one Republican and one Democrat, with real chances to win the nation?s first presidential primaries are responding to the American public?s clear desire for thorough campaign reform partly because they believe the issue is so powerful that it could help propel them into office.

This is the first time in American history that leading presidential candidates in both the Republican and Democratic parties are making campaign finance reform a top issue in their campaigns. Republican contender McCain regularly declares that unless the McCain-Feingold bill banning soft money (unlimited contributions to parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals) passes, it will be impossible to free the tax code from the grip of wealthy interests and reform wasteful domestic and military programs. He pledges that the McCain-Feingold bill — a measure he has worked on for more than four years — will be the first legislation he will press if he wins the presidency. Last October, two versions of the bill attracted a majority of 55 votes (45 Democrats and 10 Republicans), but the bills were stalled by a Senate filibuster.

On the Democratic side, Bradley, Vice President Al Gore?s only opponent, maintains that big campaign money helps account not only for special tax benefits but also for Congress?s paralysis in attacking issues such as child poverty, gun control and an HMO bill of rights, and Bradley offers the most far-reaching campaign finance reform proposal of the campaign. In addition to banning soft money and curbing corporate and union phony issue ads shortly before elections, he would transform our corruption-prone campaign finance system by giving candidates an opportunity to replace private money with public financing in return for agreeing to spending limits. His plan would also require broadcasters, as a condition of their licenses, to make free time available to candidates 60 days before an election.

In both cases, the candidates? positions are bolder than those of their leading opponents. On the Republican side, George W. Bush has said he would favor a ban on corporate and union soft money only if the overwhelmingly pro-Democratic unions also were restricted in communicating about politics with their members (he has not advocated similar curbs on large, pro-Republican groups such as the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association). He has given no indication that reform will be a major legislative priority for his presidency. And, like the Clinton administration, Gore supports the McCain-Feingold bill but has not aggressively pushed it or given a major speech about campaign reform.

What is extremely encouraging is that two serious presidential candidates from both parties are at last responding to the public?s desire for major campaign finance reform, as has been demonstrated by recent public opinion polls. For example, an October 1999 Gallup poll reported that 64 percent of a national sample wanted the system of financing federal campaigns completely overhauled or subjected to major changes. In addition, an August 1998 survey of eight states, including New Hampshire, conducted by the Mellman Group for Public Campaign, showed strong, bipartisan majorities for the McCain-Feingold provisions in all of the states. The polls also indicated that voters were willing to see further reforms adopted that went beyond the soft money and phony issue ad provisions in the current version of McCain-Feingold. Finally, a September CNN/WMUR-TV poll of likely New Hampshire primary voters revealed that the issue of limiting campaign contributions caused more voters (64 percent) to be more likely to support a presidential candidate than any other issue except that of providing health care for all Americans.

Thursday?s historic joint appearance by two top presidential candidates is a step toward making our country a better democracy and overcoming growing cynicism about the lack of political participation. It therefore poses a major challenge to all the candidates who will not be there. By taking the same pledge as McCain and Bradley to renounce soft money and promising unconditional priority support for the McCain-Feingold legislation, Bush, Gore and all the other candidates could spur necessary and long awaited reforms of our ailing political system.