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Published on Saturday, March 4, 2000 in the New York Times
When Money Is the Measure of All Things
by Anthony Lewis
 

DALLAS -- John McCain has voted consistently in the Senate for the causes of the Christian right. He has opposed abortion rights, gun control and anti-discrimination laws protecting gays and lesbians. He voted to convict President Clinton.

Yet the National Right to Life Committee and Pat Robertson, the right-wing evangelist, have bitterly opposed him in the Republican primaries. Why?

Senator McCain asked himself that question in his extraordinary Virginia Beach speech the other day. He answered: "Because I don't pander to them, because I don't ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message."

Money is our message. In that memorable phrase Senator McCain caught what has happened to the conservative movement and the Republican Party.

Conservatives used to take pride in themselves as the movement of ideas. But the ideas that propelled them to control of Congress are now mostly stale or irrelevant.

Fighting Communism waned as a theme with the crumbling of the Soviet Union and its allied regimes. The budget deficit, decried by Republicans for so many decades, has been transformed by President Clinton into a surplus. Slashing taxes, as George W.

Bush has learned to his regret, is now viewed by most of the public as a threat to present prosperity and future Social Security retirement benefits.

Without ideas in which they have confidence, most conservatives have focused increasingly on money as the way to get the public to vote for them. That is why they are so furious at Senator McCain. His proposal for campaign finance limits would take away the overwhelming financial advantage they get from their affluent backers.

The Republican Party has traditionally been the party of the well-to-do. But in the past its conservative leaders -- men like Senator Robert A. Taft -- were not so obsessed with money. They had strong policy views that they believed would persuade the public.

Governor Bush has said that the McCain campaign finance bill would be "unilateral disarmament" by the Republicans. He did not mean his words this way, but what he really seemed to be saying was that the armament of the party these days is not ideas but cash.

In the current issue of the liberal biweekly The American Prospect, John B. Judis describes how conservative luminaries set out to maintain control after Republicans won the House in 1994. Ideological lobbyists like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform met weekly with Republican Congressional leaders and business lobbyists. The aim was to get so-called soft money flowing from corporate political action committees. And it has flowed heavily toward the G.O.P.

Soft money, which is money contributed to political parties, is not regulated by current federal law as is money given to candidates. The legislation sponsored by Senator McCain and Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, would bring soft money under limitations.

"I have called for the reform of campaign finance practices that have sacrificed our principles to the demands of big-money special interests," Senator McCain said in Virginia Beach. "I have spoken against forces that have turned politics into a battle of bucks instead of a battle of ideas. . . . America is greater than the accumulation of wealth, and so our party should be."

In those words Senator McCain sounded like Theodore Roosevelt decrying "malefactors of great wealth." Indeed, he said at the end that Republicans should be "the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests."

It may be that Senator McCain's campaign crested in Michigan. His losses in Virginia and Washington make his prospects look bleak unless he can pull off a miracle next week in New York and California.

The odds against upsetting the conservative powers that be were always daunting. But in challenging their money culture, and in particular what he called the Christian right's "agents of intolerance," Senator McCain has had a powerful impact on our politics.

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Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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