But does he deserve that reputation?
Last week, organizers of Arizonans for Clean Elections, a campaign to pass a public campaign-financing initiative this November, gave McCain a chance to put his money where his mouth is.
After all, despite what folks who read profiles of McCain in Esquire might think, John McCain hasn't proved himself much of a maverick lately.
McCain-Feingold (co-named for the snowy-haired senator and his Wisconsin colleague, Democrat Russell Feingold) never had a chance of passing Congress. By the time the Senate parliamentarian finally pronounced it dead earlier this spring, McCain-Feingold had withered from a comprehensive reform package to a ban on soft money.
And if--by some miracle--some version of McCain-Feingold would have passed Congress and been signed by into law, it likely would have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, John McCain has been throwing himself fund raisers at the most expensive restaurants--like Washington, D.C.'s La Colline--with the most impressive guests--like Texas' Governor George W. Bush. All that for a Senate reelection campaign against a novice Democrat and a half-cocked Republican who enthusiastically announced his candidacy with $100 in the bank.
McCain's raised millions for a cakewalk. The latest local polling figures put his popularity in Arizona at an all-time high.
Now John McCain has a chance to do the right thing, to prove to his constituents that he does believe in campaign-finance reform.
Dennis Burke, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the public watchdog group Common Cause, wrote last week to McCain requesting a meeting on the topic of Arizonans for Clean Elections, a nonpartisan coalition working to put an initiative on November's ballot that would create an alternative source of funding for state political candidates who give up private contributions, demonstrate broad-based support and adhere to strict spending limits.
The measure--similar versions have been passed in Maine and Vermont, and may be on the ballot this year in New York City, Missouri and Massachusetts--requires participating candidates to raise $5 contributions from a proportional number of voters required to sign nominating petitions.
If a candidate sticks to voluntary spending limits (a state legislature candidate can collect $2,000; a gubernatorial candidate, $40,000), he will qualify for matching funds--up to three times the original amount--if he's targeted by an independent expenditure campaign or a nonparticipant.
Funding sources include a $5 voluntary income tax checkoff that triggers a $5 tax credit; increased fees on lobbyists; and a 10 percent surcharge on criminal and civil fines and penalties.
Sounds great. So where's John? Why hasn't McCain jumped on board--alongside Common Cause, AARP, the League of Women Voters, the AFL-CIO and local political luminaries like attorney Paul Eckstein, Republican state legislator Sue Lynch and former Democratic governor Rose Mofford?
McCain's office did not respond to a written request for the senator's position on public financing of campaigns.
Common Cause's Burke says he only recently got the go-ahead to lobby McCain for his support. Seems the national Common Cause folks wanted to leave some mourning time for McCain-Feingold.
Burke doesn't sound hopeful. "Historically he [McCain] has not been friendly to the idea of this kind of campaign-finance idea, but I don't think he's seen the specifics of this one yet," he says.
Indeed, McCain's name is not among the list of co-sponsors of a similar bill in Congress.
With his pet bill dead, his coffers stuffed and his popularity high, why wouldn't John McCain take a chance and push for this kind of radical reform?
Josh Silver, campaign manager for Arizonans for Clean Elections, is blunt.
"Given the sort of political ground that he's [McCain's] trying to create for himself [to run for president], he's not going to take a position on something like this," Silver says. "This is not John McCain's reform, this is somebody else's. And by all of the stances I've ever seen McCain take in the past, if it's not his way, it's the highway."
The organizers of Arizonans for Clean Elections had about 90,000 signatures as of press time. If they don't get another 70,000 by July 2, they'll be roadkill.