“We won’t reform anything until we first reform the way we finance our political campaigns. As long as special interests dominate campaigns, they will dominate legislation as well. Until we abolish soft money, Americans will never have a government that works as hard for them as it does for the special interests.”
—John McCain, 1999
The wisest response to most mentions of “bipartisanship” is to run screaming from the room. More often than not, “bipartisan” projects involve a collapse of conscience into the corrupt center where the demands of the billionaire class are invariably met.
But it does not have to be that way. We know from the work of John McCain and Russ Feingold on the issue of campaign-finance reform that partisans from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum can come together with the purpose of upsetting the calculations of the elites who have made it their business to control our politics and our governance.
When Feingold was elected to the Senate in 1992, McCain had just finished his first term in the chamber. The senator from Arizona was not identified as a reformer—in fact, his reputation had been tarnished by the 1989 “Keating Five” scandal. He understood, as he would explain some years later, that “The people whom I serve believe that the means by which I came to office corrupt me.” And he said: “That shames me.”
To address that shame, and the broader shame of our money-drenched politics, the Arizonan needed a partner from across the aisle. He chose the newly elected senator from Wisconsin. Feingold told NPR: “He just called me up out of the blue. He said, ‘You seem to have a good record. Would you like to work with me?’ And I said ‘yeah.’ So I never knew exactly why he chose that moment to do it, but he did.”
McCain once told me that he reached out to Feingold because he wanted a partner he could trust to work closely with him when he was right and to challenge him when he was wrong. What appealed to him was not just the fact that Feingold was a Democrat but that he was a progressive Democrat who had values that meant more to him than party labels.