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CITIZEN McCAIN, By Elizabeth Drew, Simon & Schuster:
182 pp., $23

Arizona Powerhouse

A Snapshot of Washington's Most Centrist Politician

June 09, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein is the national political correspondent for the Times.

Arizona Sen. John McCain may be the most intriguing figure in Washington today. His challenge to George W. Bush--the overwhelming choice of the GOP financial and elected establishment--for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 was the most effective insurgent presidential campaign in a generation. McCain touched such a popular chord, especially with moderate and independent voters, that he returned to Congress as one of the few legislators ever whose stature was enhanced by a losing presidential run.

Since Bush took office, McCain has continued the ideological odyssey that began in his 2000 race. McCain arrived in Washington during the 1980s as a conventional small-government Republican. But, with Theodore Roosevelt as his model, he has become increasingly open to federal action on a broad range of problems. McCain isn't a policy junkie, and the depth of his knowledge on some domestic issues sometimes runs only a sound bite deep. But rarely has Washington seen a politician rethink his fundamental beliefs so completely after he arrived.

This evolution has opened deep divides between McCain and most of his Senate Republican colleagues, few of whom have voted for his major legislative initiatives since the 2000 race. But it has made him a magnet for Democrats looking to construct centrist coalitions in the closely divided Senate. McCain has seized the opportunity. Once a gadfly and maverick, he's now building more alliances across party lines than any senator in recent memory. McCain is co-sponsoring so many major bills with Democrats that his has become the most hyphenated name in Washington: everything from McCain-Hollings (airport security) to McCain-Kennedy-Edwards (managed care reform) to McCain-Kerry (improving automotive fuel economy) to, of course, McCain-Feingold (campaign finance reform). It's a measure of McCain's continuing power as a symbol of reform that every congressional Democrat seriously considering a bid for the party's 2004 presidential nomination is now co-sponsoring legislation with him.

Alas, almost none of this rich story comes through in veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew's new book on the senator, "Citizen McCain." Focusing narrowly on McCain's drive, with Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, to pass the campaign finance reform legislation that Bush finally signed earlier this year, Drew gets utterly lost in the details. The result is that this thin book feels both skimpy and padded. It contains more than anyone might ever want to know about the backstage negotiations on the rule that governed debate on the campaign finance bill in the House of Representatives. But it offers no history or broader perspective to frame its ostensible subjects: McCain and the effort to limit money in politics.

Drew never fully grapples with the largest questions swirling around McCain and the campaign finance reform bill. Nor does she ever seriously question whether the new campaign finance limits (primarily the ban on previously unregulated soft money contributions) will change Washington as much as its authors believe, though there's considerable evidence that ideological polarization is a greater problem in Congress than special interest influence. Though accurately recording McCain's sharpened skills as a legislator, the book doesn't assess whether he's become such a lightning rod for other Republicans that his name on a bill guarantees increased resistance from conservatives (including those in the White House).

"Citizen McCain" simply drops the reader into the Senate in January 2001, explaining virtually nothing about the decade-long legislative struggle over campaign finance reform that preceded the final drive. Nor does it adequately consider the impact of McCain's 2000 race, which provided a critical injection of momentum for the reform effort and undoubtedly influenced Bush's decision to sign the bill. It doesn't help that Drew renders her story in lifeless prose that veers toward stenography. The overall effect is like being trapped on the Senate subway with a conscientious but very dull, and not particularly insightful, tour guide.

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