A month or so ago, before Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert used his procedural know-how to pull the plug on campaign-finance legislation, Arizona Senator John McCain and Memphis' 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr. were said to be planning a joint appearance on behalf of it in Memphis, complete with attendant ballyhoo.
Before the first trumpet could sound a note, however, the whole thing came to nought. And people in the Ford camp, as well as Democrats in general, are pointing an accusatory finger at Tennessee's two Republican senators Ñ Fred Thompson, who's still agonizing over whether he will or won't be a candidate for reelection next year, and Bill Frist, who heads the Gop Senate Campaign Committee.
According to an article in the August 2nd issue of Roll Call, Thompson and Frist may have conspired to pressure McCain into dropping the Memphis event with Ford, which would have occurred virtually on the eve of a scheduled vote on the Shays-Meehan reform bill, a companion measure to the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill in the Senate.
Why would the two GOP senators do a thing like that? Because, Democrats suggest, the joint appearance with Ford would have given Democrat Ford high visibility and serious momentum for a Senate race next year, should Thompson eventually decide against a reelection bid and allow his seat to become open.
Republicans Ñ a technical minority since the conversion to independent status of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords Ñ are just one seat shy of possessing a controlling majority in the Senate and are loath to risk any seat currently in their possession.
And how could the almost fussily independent-minded McCain allow himself to be so influenced? Because he and Thompson, an early backer of his ultimately unsuccessful presidential bid last year, remain close.
And, even though McCain is planning a number of nationwide whistle-stop events this fall as a means of reviving the reform bills, Memphis remains off the calendar.
Thompson and Frist deny having anything to do with all this. "I didn't discourage [McCain] to do it," Thompson told Roll Call. "Quite frankly, I think Harold Jr. has a bright future, but his future is not foremost on my mind. I think he's concerned about something that doesn't exist."
And Frist says his hands are clean, too. "Never talked to Fred about it, never talked to McCain about it, never talked to Junior about it," he said.
Even McCain weighed in with a disclaimer. "It was a better use of our time. It's about media markets," McCain said of his abrupt decision last month to drop plans for a Memphis appearance and limit his pre-vote visits to Boston and New York.
For his part, Ford - who played a key role in keeping members of the Congressional Black Caucus loyal to the reform legislation even as some of them began to feel it might interfere with African-Americans' money-raising efforts - remained intent to making things happen. "[McCain' has mentioned to me that he wanted to come down," Ford told Roll Call . "I want it to happen."
Like his boss, Ford's chief of staff, Memphian Mark Schuermann, stressed the public-interest aspects of the contemplated visit - which, as originally planned, might also have included Sen. Feingold and Georgia congressman John Lewis. "The overriding objective of having Sen. McCain come to Memphis was to advance the debate on campaign finance reform," said Schuermann, who pointedly added that he had "heard" the speculation about a party-pooping effort by Frist and Thompson.
John Weaver, who heads Straight Talk America, McCain's political action committee (PAC), said "[w]e liked it" about the aborted Memphis event and professed, "We're still open to doing it."
And Matt Keller, legislative director for the activist group Common Cause, which has been working closely with both McCain and Feingold, said the proposed joint appearance might still come off "[i]f we need to resurrect it to help pass [campaign finance reform]."
The thrust of the Roll Call article, however, was that this might be so much wishful thinking at this point.