The Smirk Survives Reform Campaign

The establishment won on "Super Tuesday" but campaign finance reformers nearly wiped that smirk off George W. Bush's face. The fortunate son of the former president was handed a record $70 million by some of the wealthiest men in the country so their boy, Dubya, could run for president. Then John McCain got in the race and nearly scared them to death, riding campaign finance reform. But when Bush started running low on funds heading into March, his backers stepped up with their own "independent" attack ads and punched as low as they needed to go to smear McCain while Dubya proclaimed his innocence.

The many-headed Hydra into which the Bush campaign morphed to beat back McCain and his reform insurgency provides a textbook case of the problems with money in politics and the need for sweeping campaign finance reform.

The system was rigged against McCain -- as it is against any reformer -- but the insurgency at least put the lie to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell's sneer that voters don't care about campaign finance reform. Just as ordinary working people cheered and sheltered Granny D along her heroic 3,200-mile walk across the United States to the steps of the Capitol, the Arizona maverick drew large numbers of independents and Democrats in New Hampshire who were attracted to his populist campaign to clean up the system. The turnout stunned Bush and the GOP leadership nearly into a panic.

Republican leaders were outraged when McCain burst out of New Hampshire and declared that if he were nominated, he would forbid the Republican National Committee from raising or spending "soft money" on his behalf. He also would discourage the use of independent attack ads. GOP officials plan to spend upwards of $100 million in "soft money" -- the unlimited contributions to state and federal parties that are supposed to go toward party-building -- to support their candidates this fall, the Washington Post reported.

When McCain moved to South Carolina and toned down the reform rhetoric, he allowed Bush to take the offensive. Bush's campaign pulled out the stilettoes as well as the big guns in an expert use of the smear campaign. Bush and his surrogates spread lies, half-truths and innuendoes and watched McCain spend his limited resources trying to answer them. It's no coincidence that McCain won again in Michigan when he returned to the anti-establishment theme. He also benefitted from the backlash against autocratic Gov. John Engler and Bush's pandering to fundamentalist Christians.

McCain gambled when he travelled to Pat Robertson's hometown to denounce the influence of Robertson and Jerry Falwell as he urged the Republicans to reclaim the moderate middle. McCain lost in Virginia, and he wrote off most of the South, but he also exposed that the purge from the party of moderate Republicans is nearly complete. Northern Catholics who have been lured to vote Republican were reminded that the GOP is dominated by fundamentalists who consider the Church of Rome to be a dangerous foreign cult.

Then, in the runup to the March 7 primaries, Texas billionaires Charles and Sam Wyly, who had each raised $100,000 for Bush, threw $2.5 million into TV commercials posing as "Republicans for Clean Air," attacking McCain's environmental record (which real environmentalists rate as marginally better than that of Bush). Anyway, the Wylys' spur-of-the-moment PAC coincidentally found a New York ad agency that does a lot of work for Gov. George Pataki, who happens to be Bush's New York campaign chairman. Bush denied any connection with the Wylys' ads, of course.

McCain complained to the Federal Election Commission, alleging that, as major fundraisers for Bush, the Wylys held official positions with his campaign, and therefore the "independent" ads were illegal. McCain also complained to the Federal Communications Commission that the suspect ad failed to identify its true sponsor.

"The deal right now is this $2.5 million from Bush's Texas cronies," McCain said March 7. "It's clearly coordinated, coming into this campaign. This is a violation of every principle that I've been fighting for in campaign finance reform. If you are going to let billionaires come in and run negative attack ads costing millions of dollars, you're going to destroy the political process as we know it."

A Bush spokesman had the gall to call McCain "irresponsible" and "shameful" for pursuing the complaints. FCC officials concluded they could do little more than tell broadcasters that the potential violation had been raised. If a ruling ever comes from the FEC, it likely will be long after the general election and the commission likely will find that there is more than enough gray area in the election code to let the Wylys and the Bush campaign off the hook.

With the Republican nomination in sight, Bush obviously wants to tie the 1996 Democratic fundraising scandal -- and particularly the Buddhist temple fundraising debacle -- around Al Gore's neck, but the record shows Bush has put his own principles in a blind trust. Gore will score this summer and fall off Dubya's ties to right-wing fundamentalist preachers and the billionaire friends of Bush who have bankrolled his campaigns and profited from his administration in Texas. Also, the Associated Press reported March 1 that GWB even offered sleepovers at the Governor's Mansion in Austin for at least eight of his top fundraisers. (Shades of the notorious Lincoln Bedroom rental!)

Granny D has urged her supporters to demand a pledge from congressional and Senate candidates to support the McCain-Feingold bill, including a ban on soft money.

That's good as far as it goes, but such a ban wouldn't stop the Wylys' "independent" attack ads. Big money won't leave the system, but public financing is necessary to let honest people run for public office.

Public Campaign, the group that is promoting public financing of federal campaigns, noted that voters in exit polls from the first five primaries ranked campaign finance reform higher than the issues of abortion and education, and nearly as important as world affairs. Between 70 and 80 percent of voters in Michigan, Arizona, Delaware and New Hampshire said campaign finance reform would help the political process. (The question was not asked of South Carolina voters.) In every case, these voters were a significant source of support for McCain.

Dollar democracy is a bipartisan problem. In California, Proposition 25 on the ballot would have limited contributions in state races to $5,000, required disclosures on ad campaigns, banned corporate donations and provided state funds for candidates who agreed to voluntary spending limits. The initiative, sponsored by conservative businessman Ron Unz, united Democratic and Republican leaders as well as organized labor and business groups -- in opposition. It was defeated.

But in North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt has endorsed public financing of election campaigns, according to the Raleigh News and Observer. Hunt said the political system has become distorted by the constant money chase. The newspaper reported that the governor was troubled because, during his 1996 re-election campaign, the only time he visited some counties was to raise campaign cash for his $10 million re-election effort.

More than 1,000 public officials in North Carolina now have come out for a system of public financing, signing the reform pledge as part of the national Elected Leadership Project 2000 organized by Public Campaign. See their web site at (www.publicampaign.org) or call 202-293-0222.

Dubya's smirk survives, but keep up the pressure. The battle may not be won this year, or next year. But the people must raise their voices louder than the dollar's. -- JMC

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