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Campaign Finance Town Hall Meeting

Location: Sponsored by ABC News Nightline

MCCAIN: Bill and I made a command decision to wear overcoats, and I'm darned glad—the first joint decision we've made in the campaign was a smart one, given—I thank all of you for being out here on this brisk Arizona day.

It's a pleasure—by the way, please come out—the temperature I think is 73 today in Phoenix, but I'm not here to give any commercials for the Chamber of Commerce. Thank you for coming today, and it's a pleasure for me to spend some time with a man who I have admired and known as a friend in the United States Senate.

Let me just—as you probably know, I was going to make about a two or three minute comment, and Bill was, and then I think Mr. Koppel is going to come and we're going to proceed with the town hall meeting.

I'm running for president of the United States because I want to reform the institutions of government. I want to reform education. I want to reform the military. I want to reform the tax code which is 44,000 pages long. And I most of all want to give the government back to the people of this country.

I don't believe we can do that unless we reform the finance system—the big, huge, large-numbered checks, $100,000, $200,000, $500,000 checks that are really distorting and corrupting the legislative process. I believe that that is the gateway to these other reforms.

My friends, the scandal in the last few years was not Monica Lewinsky. The scandal was the debasement of every institution of government by the Clinton-Gore campaign. This president took the Lincoln bedroom and treated it like Motel 6, and he was the bellhop. The vice president of the United States asked monks and nuns to violate their vows of poverty in order to pay—and paid thousands of dollars so that they could spiritually commune with him.

By the way, in case you missed it, he said he didn't know where he was in the Buddhist temple. Perhaps the odor of incense and all those folks in saffron robes might have given him a clue.

But—and then he said that there's no controlling legal authority—no controlling legal authority. I want to tell you—I want to tell the vice president and everybody else, when I'm president, there will be a controlling legal authority. There will be a controlling legal authority. And I can understand why the vice president might oppose it, but I do not understand why Governor Bush would oppose such a thing, because that's—that—what happened in Chinese money and Indonesian money and transfer of technology indeed should be made illegal. And I hope that every American will join Senator Bradley and me today.

MCCAIN: Finally, with this kind of reform of government, I can inspire young Americans to commit themselves to causes greater than their self-interest, and that's the job of the president of the United States.

I'm pleased to be here with you at this now becoming a historic site. I'm pleased you're here today, and I thank you all for participating in this very important effort to give the government of this country back to its citizens and take it out of the big money and the special interests that now rule Washington, D.C.

It's your government, and you deserve to have it back.

MCCAIN: The reason why Bill Bradley and I share this concern is because we work there. We know what the influence of this big money is on the legislative process and how it's taken the government away from the American people and given it to the special interests, number one.

Number two is, I think Americans may be a little weary of poll- driven priorities.

And number three is, that if you ask that question in a different way: Are you concerned about the influence of special interests and big money in Washington? You would find that number goes—that priority goes way up amongst the American people.

Just let me remind you, in the last election of the 18 to 26- year-olds, we had the lowest voter turnout in history.

A recent Pew Research poll shows that 69 percent of the 18- to 35-year-olds in America said they were disconnected from government. The reason given, the special interests.

Look, it's out there. And the people in New Hampshire that Bill and I have been talking to all over the state view it as a very serious issue.

MCCAIN: Well, thank you, sir. That's a very clever misrepresentation of my position and the legislation, and I have seen that, of course, quite frequently.

Now what we are trying to do, sir—could I have your attention? What we are trying to do is to make sure that the so-called uncontrolled money, the soft money, does not have the influence over—undisclosed and unaccounted for—over this process.

MCCAIN: I want you to be involved in every campaign, but I want you to adhere to the $1,000 limits on contributions to that, sir. I think it's very important that it not be undisclosed, unaccounted for soft money pushing for anyone involved in a political campaign.

MCCAIN: I totally favor, sir, your ability to take any money from anywhere, although I certainly hope that both of us would lament Chinese and Indonesian money, which is now legal in America, to further your cause. But once you get involved in a specific political campaign, I would like very much for you to be—adhere to the same contribution limits as the candidates do. That does not deprive you of your ability to exercise your right of free speech. It's in keeping with the 1974 law.

So my response to you is that is a totally false mischaracterization of the situation and it does not prevail, and I'll be glad to provide you with a counter-argument as well. But the last time around, all we did was try to ban the so-called soft money, and that did not succeed in the Congress of the United States either.

MCCAIN: Well, thank you, but it's simply not true. I am saying again...

MCCAIN: I say they can endorse whenever they want to.

MCCAIN: But if they're involved in that campaign, they should adhere to the same campaign restrictions of $1,000 limit on an individual contribution, is what I'm saying.

MCCAIN: Well, let me repeat again. If you phrase the question differently, Americans are deeply concerned about it. Excuse me—a special interest influence in big money and politics, they're deeply concerned about it. And they certainly are here in New Hampshire where I've been signing this theme.

I really take exception to the characterization that the system was better before. Obviously, you might have missed the Watergate situation where Maurice Stans was walking around with a valise with $1.5 million in cash in it. Where—look, the reason why we have the reforms today is because of one of the greatest scandals in American history. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt, the great reformer, was able to get corporate contributions to American political campaigns outlawed because the robber barons had taken over American politics.

A Republican Congress in 1947 outlawed union contributions to political campaigns. Those laws are still on the books. They've been avoided, emasculated, and gone around to an alarming degree. And the fact is that now causes have turned into businesses. When I first ran in 1982, there was no such thing as this soft money. And the right- to-life people had a grassroots organization in my state, in my district, where I knocked on 10,000 doors.

Now all we do—get the big money, buy the ads, the attack ads and have the, quote, "issue advocacy ads," which we all know are negative attack ads, and run it that way. That's what has happened to American political campaigns, and I...

MCCAIN: Thank you. Thank you for your comment and thank you for your question because this comes up all the time on this issue. I don't believe in public financing because I don't think my tax dollars should be used to fund a person's campaign that I philosophically disagree with. But let me also add one more comment, if I could, very briefly.

I think soft money is the primary evil. I believe that there is going to come a time sooner rather than later where a lot of us are going to sit down and say OK, this system is broken. We talk about free speech. It's 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. Don't we all agree that that's wrong? Can't we sit down together and come up with a solution to this? I think we can.

I philosophically don't believe in public financing. But I think that there are a lot of areas where we can agree and a lot of areas where we can make fundamental and beneficially changes.

MCCAIN: So we have no soft money.

MCCAIN: That takes care of it.

MCCAIN: Thank you for your father's commitment.

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, could I respond very quickly. I do not believe in a litmus test for a nominee on any issue, because I don't think it's proper. But second of all, I believe anyone who reads the Constitution carefully does not believe that this is abridgement of free speech.

In fact, Buckley v. Valeo upheld the $1,000 contribution limit. And the fact is the Supreme Court also said in that decision that money and politics creates the appearance of corruption and corruption—that's a direct quote from Buckley v. Valeo. So I think any nominee would clearly view this as free speech is not money.

As I've said again, if free speech is money, my friends, then the folks with the big money and the Chinese and the Indonesians, all are there with the megaphones in front and you, my dear friends, are in the back whispering. That's not what our founding fathers had in mind.

MCCAIN: And I know it's coming.

MCCAIN: Thank you for that kind and generous comment.

Sir, I've had the opportunity to defend the Constitution of the United States, and I'm proud of that defense of it. And I am very proud to tell you that there's a preponderance of legal opinion on the side of everything that I have done.

And in all due respect, I understand my oath of office and I understand my obligations to the country. And I respect your service to the state of New Hampshire and I respect your views. But that doesn't mean in any way that I would challenge your allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. And I thank you very much.

MCCAIN: The television and radio stations, unlike the print media, use the public's assets—the spectrum—in order to function. And when they get a license to use that, they sign a piece of paper that says they will act in the, quote, "public interest." It seems to me that the public interest is clearly that they should help with the political process in informing the American people.

And by the way, the broadcasters just got away with one of the great rip-offs in history—about $70 billion worth of free spectrum. So I think they have an added obligation, in all due respect to this network and any other...

... but they have an added obligation to provide free television time for candidates. And I think some—the argument against that—well, nobody will watch—look, these folks are very good at enticing people to watch their networks and their stations. I think they could do a good job in helping candidates attract viewers as well.

MCCAIN: I do have a specific proposal. It is a big problem in America and in New Hampshire as well, and I'd be glad to provide you with those specific proposals, because it is a very serious problem.

But I also want to add, yes, the pharmaceutical companies do have a very big voice in Washington and you don't. It's also fascinating to me that you can drive to Canada and buy those same drugs at about half the price, as you well know. Many New Hampshire people are intrigued by that, as are my fellow citizens of Arizona.

But let me just give you one brief example that's more clear cut. HMO. Everybody in this room and you and I and Bill and Ted could come up with a Patients' Bill of Rights by the time this program is over. Why do you think we haven't got an HMO bill of rights? Because the Democrats are gridlocked by the trial lawyers who want everybody to sue everybody for anything, and the Republicans are gridlocked by the insurance companies and the HMO money. It is the classic example of the American citizen who is a member of an HMO who is being deprived of their rights, and it's really a dramatic example of this problem.

And I thank you. And we'll work to help you resolve this problem, you and every other American who is facing this problem with prescription drugs. It's very serious.

MCCAIN: Could I make one additional comment, Ted. As you know, I've not been elected Miss Congeniality every year in the United States Senate.

If you want the status quo in Washington, don't vote for me. As you might remember, I was attacked by several of my colleagues on this issue, on the floor of the Senate. A few days later in the New York Times—this is a follow up to what Bill was saying. Mr. Kangus (ph), who is chairman of the board of directors of Deloitte Touche said the following—and this was what he said.

"You could almost hear the laughter coming from board rooms and executive suites all over the country when Senate opponents of campaign finance reform expressed dismay that anyone could think big, political contributions are corrupting elections in government."

MCCAIN: Could I say that I don't believe that the president was ever serious. And I think there is documentation now that indicates that. And I can tell you from my involvement with the White House in this effort, all I really ever got from them was lip service.

The second thing is, I think—and I—Senator Bradley can speak for himself, but I think you're looking at two people who have had this commitment and been working on this effort for many, many years. And obviously, it doesn't inspire a broad-based support in some areas, in some places. But the fact is that I'm committed to it and I will remain committed until the last breath I draw.

MCCAIN: Sure. Yes. Thank you. As you may—as I think you know, the McCain-Feingold bill was a piece of legislation that was debated on the floor of the Senate and is debated all around the country. And fundamentally, it's banning of soft money; full disclosure; in some cases, free television time; and of course, this so-called idea of the independent expenditures, which were no more independent than I am a Martian.

And I think that—I'd be glad to give you a lot of the specifics of it, but those are the broad outlines of it. But I also want to emphasize there's a lot of ways to get to heaven. And I'm willing to negotiate and sit down with those who believe that the system has to be fixed, and I'm not locked into a specific position except for those principles that I just described.

And I thank you for being here, and I thank you for your interest in this issue.

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