U.S. Sen. John McCain, who spent years fighting for campaign-finance reforms finally enacted last year, doesn't fully understand what the new law does, a top regulator said Friday in Phoenix.
"From listening to Senator McCain's comments on the subject through the summer and fall, . . . I don't think he had as good an understanding as someone playing such a major role should have (had) in what the law was before his bill passed, or in what was in his bill to change the law," Federal Election Commission Vice Chairman Bradley A. Smith said.
McCain's office did not respond Friday to several messages requesting comment from the Arizona Republican.
Smith opposes most campaign-finance laws as infringements of free speech and intrusions by government into personal freedoms.
He told about 150 people at a Goldwater Institute luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton that the government should not be in the business of regulating donations and keeping a detailed database on who gives how much to whom.
In an interview afterward, the Harvard-educated law professor said McCain had little cause to have criticized the Republican National Committee "for putting out information that he says contains falsehoods and exaggerations" about the effects of the new law.
"I don't see anything that I thought was inaccurate" in the committee's warnings about changes that could bring possible fines or, for the first time, jail terms for campaign officials, Smith said.
The bipartisan act, known informally by the names of sponsors McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, goes further than McCain believes, according to Smith.
"If he didn't have a good grasp of the law before McCain-Feingold, and if he didn't have a good grasp of what was in McCain-Feingold, he probably doesn't have a good grasp of the end result," the FEC commissioner said. "I think he gets bad advice from his staff. I don't think he's well briefed by his staff, perhaps."
McCain has likened appointing Smith to the FEC to naming a conscientious objector as the nation's Defense secretary. Recent attacks have grown more personal, the commissioner said.
"Senator McCain has sometimes accused me of saying things I did not say and doing things I did not do," Smith said. "He has suggested that I'm corrupt simply because I don't agree with him. He's suggested that I'm a bad person because I don't agree with him."
Saying that he still respects many of McCain's views on political issues and that the senator "truly is an authentic American hero," Smith said, "I just feel sad about the way Senator McCain abuses those who normally would be on his side and that we can't have a constructive dialogue."
The Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, had intended the session to be a forum featuring Smith and McCain and had printed programs with both men's photos. But the Arizona Republican "had to cancel," institute President Darcy Olsen said.
McCain's office has insisted that the senator never accepted an invitation to appear.