John McCain returned to the Senate yesterday after losing his bid for the White House. But he carried with him that rare national stature only enjoyed until now by one other senator, Ted Kennedy.
The crusading Republican left a presidential race in which the nominees-apparent, Al Gore and George W. Bush, are now hard-pressed to deal with the boomeranging issue of campaign-finance reform that Mr. McCain can still champion.
Just look at how vigorously George W. Bush and Al Gore are competing for the banner of reformer, and all the independent voters that presumably go with it.
In Mr. Bush's case, however, reform does not mean big changes in campaign-finance laws. By ignoring McCain's message, Bush is testing the limits of his claim to be inclusive, while still saying he does not want to snub his former primary foe. He seems to be saying that he won on that issue with Republican voters, and he'll stay on the course for the general election.
McCain, meanwhile, presses on.
He is forming a political action committee (PAC) to extend his crusade for changing the campaign-finance system, with its gaping "soft money" loophole. The new PAC, dubbed Straight Talk America, will support reformist Republican candidates who share the senator's views.
With that purpose, it's on a collision course with another group within the GOP called the Club for Growth, which is determined to defeat just such candidates.
The Club for Growth is made up of people who say the current economy is booming in large part because of the supply-side economics of the Reagan years. They want to elect Republicans to Congress who back big tax cuts and more deregulation. Moderates in the party say they're being targeted by their own supposed comrades.
The McCain vs. Club battle at the level of congresional races will provide some of the same yeastiness of the primaries. Democrats may rub their hands, thinking they see opponents still in conflict with themselves.
But the critical question is which candidates can credibly put themselves forward as willing and able to champion campaign-finance reform. That debate will keep the heat on the presidential candidates.
Mr. Gore now claims his record of past campaign-finance abuses makes him the better reformer on the issue. That claim is aimed at countering Bush's huge fund-raising apparatus.
McCain has decided to work within his party to advance the reform agenda. Perhaps he and Bush can patch things up and put a campaign-finance plank in the GOP platform.
That won't be easy. But thanks to the down-but-not-quite-out senator from Arizona, both Bush and Gore will have to keep trying to raise the banner of political reform.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society