WASHINGTON -- Ten days ago, George W. Bush's presidential campaign went to earth in Austin to lick its wounds, many of them self-inflicted. Then the candidate, his dog fed and himself refreshed, came out swinging and landed a molar-rattling uppercut on his own jaw.
John McCain stresses his character, and his passion for campaign finance reform is supposed to serve as a token of good character. Mr. McCain wants to reform campaigns by expanding government control of political speech, imposing additional regulations on citizens contributions and candidates and independent groups expenditures. So last week, Mr. Bush charged that Mr. McCain's behavior in financing his own campaign is hypocritical. Mr. Bush said: Hes raised more money than anybody in the campaign from lobbyists and insiders. I guess thats what happens in Washington, where you say one thing and do another.
In 1967-1968, when Michigan's Gov. George Romney was seeking the Republican presidential nomination, reporters joked that they installed on their typewriters special keys so that with a single stroke they could type the phrase Romney later explained ... A Bush aide later explained that although Mr. Bush has raised more money than Mr. McCain has from lobbyists, Mr. McCain has raised more as a percentage of the total amount of money he [Mr. McCain] has raised. Another day in the Bush campaign, another day wasted.
The $70 million Bush campaign should dip into petty cash and hire a fact checker. Furthermore, it should arrange tutorials for Mr. Bush concerning campaign financing, which is really about freedom of political speech.
Mr. Bush's current objection to Mr. McCain's campaign finance position -- that Mr. McCain is a hypocrite for playing under existing rules while advocating new rules -- is too puerile to merit confuting. But last week, Mr. Bush at least took note of McCain2000.com, Mr. McCain's Web page, which asserted: John McCain has always consistently opposed public funding of campaigns and has never proposed such a plan. Not exactly.
In 1990 and 1991, he voted with just four other Republicans (and with 54 Democrats in 1990 and 51 Democrats in 1991) for public funding in the form of communications vouchers equal to 20 percent of the proposed general election spending limit, and for tax dollars for candidates to counter independent expenditures. In 1992, Mr. McCain and two other Republicans voted with 55 Democrats for a similar bill, and with 54 Democrats in an unsuccessful attempt to override President Bush's veto of that legislation. In 1993, Mr. McCain voted for taxpayer payments to candidates to counter independent expenditures or to counter spending by opponents who would choose to exercise their First Amendment rights and not comply with the voluntary spending limits.
He also voted to require any broadcast paid for by a communications voucher to contain this sentence: The preceding political advertisement was paid for with taxpayer funds.
Mr. McCain consistently misrepresents not only his position, but current law. Herewith four examples.
In December on Nightline, a New Hampshire resident asked Mr. McCain how he could justify his proposal to make it illegal for citizens groups other than a political action committee to even mention the name of a member of Congress two whole months before any election, general or primary. Mr. McCain dismissed this as a very clever misrepresentation of my position.
But that is exactly what the McCain-Feingold bill introduced in the last Congress would have done, and Mr. McCain has never disavowed that as an ultimate objective.
Second, Mr. McCain says his only target is uncontrolled money, the soft money. However, every version of McCain-Feingold would outlaw the political parties soft money, which is the only soft money controlled and accountable under Federal Election Commission regulations. (Soft money is money that cannot be given to or spent by a federal candidate for a specific campaign.)
Third, Mr. McCain says his reforms are needed because it is now legal in America for a Chinese Army-owned corporation with a subsidiary in the United States of America to give unlimited amounts of money to an American political campaign. Actually, it already is illegal for any corporation, foreign or domestic, to give any money to an American political campaign.
Fourth, Mr. McCain promises not to accept soft money if he is nominated. However, the meaning of this piety is unclear. It is illegal for soft money to be spent in connection with any federal election, meaning expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified federal candidate. Furthermore, the law presumes that 65 percent of expenditures by the parties national committees are in connection with federal elections, and therefore cannot by law and existing regulations be the soft dollars that Mr. McCain says he would not accept.
A reasonable surmise is that Mr. McCain does not understand his campaigns central issue, and neither does Mr. Bush.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.