Gore's (Evil?) Neccesity

The Democratic convention in Los Angeles was an affair of disconnection. In Hollywood terms: a Sylvester Stallone comedy -- only even less amusing.

On the final night, after a semi-cheesey bio-film narrated by Tipper Gore -- in which we learned such crucial information as the fact her husband "enjoyed family vacations as much as the kids" -- Al Gore took the stage and put forward the case for electing him president. The nation could become a more prosperous and fairer society, he asserted. Yet too often, "powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way ... The power should be in your hands."

How could that be achieved? Gore had the answer: "Get all the special interest money out by enacting campaign finance reform." He vowed that were he to succeed Bill Clinton, the first piece of legislation he would send to Congress would be the McCain-Feingold bill to ban soft-money contributions. (These are the large contributions -- often in the range of $100,000 -- that corporations, unions, and well-heeled individuals make to the parties.) Referring to Big Tobacco, Big Oil, the HMOs, and the pharmaceutical industry, he maintained, "Sometime you have to be willing to stand up and say no [to them], so people can have a better life."

Gore has conceded that he cannot win the personality face-off with good ol' Geroge W. Bush ("I won't always be the most exciting"). Consequently, he has calculated his best bet is to portray himself as an advocate and defender of the commoner ("But I will work for you.") After eight years of Bill Clinton as Big Daddy, the choice is an affable buddy who you want to hang with or a brother you may not always like but who looks out for you. And Gore is willing to protect you from those special-interest bullies. That's not a bad way for Gore to frame the election. Perhaps it is his only chance.

But besides his inability to convey any message -- "I didn't feel that speech," one Democratic congressman complained afterward -- there are, at least, two other problems: history and reality.

Gore used to be known within Clinton circles as the "soliciter-in-chief" because he enjoyed the unseemly task of hitting up big-money contributors. When he was asking them to donate tens of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party, did he tell these people he required the money so he could fight the power?

Of course, his own brushes with fundraising scandals taint his crusade. But human beings do experience conversions. Even a Vice President of the United States can grow.

Yet the Democratic convention, which was organized entirely for Gore's benefit, showed little evidence of such evolution.

With the proceedings scripted from opening to closing gavel, there was no action in Los Angeles, except for one activity -- fundraising. The week was jammed with corporate fundraisers for the Democrats. Corporate-sponsored parties. Corporate-sponsored golf tournaments. Corporate-sponsored shopping excursions. The Dems were happy to sop up as much corporate money as possible. (Note to Gore: that's money from "powerful forces.")

The party rewarded its deep-pocket donors with skybox seats and other amenities. The infamous $500,000 fundraiser sponsored by Representative Loretta Sanchez, first scheduled to be held at the Playboy mansion and then relocated to Universal Studio's City Walk, was underwritten by various corporations. (Asked about this, Sanchez claimed she did not know which corporations were on her side.) A bunch of energy companies feted Representative John Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the committee that deals with energy policy.

When Ted Kennedy addressed the convention and called for universal health care, the delegates on the floor cheered. I gazed up toward the skyboxes and saw few people applauding. No surprise there; the party of Al Gore has accepted over $10 million this election cycle from the health care and insurance industries. As with the Republicans' faux-diversity convention in Philadelphia, there was a reality-rhetoric gap in Los Angeles.

The back of a party invitation for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee listed the group's best pals: Raytheon, National Beer Wholesalers Association, Verizon, United Food and Commerical Workers Union (got to have labor represented, right?), AT&T, Motorola, Visa, SBC Telecommunications, American Bankers Asociation, American Council of Life Insurers, Bechtel Group, TransAmerica, the United States Telecom Association, and Philip Morris.

Yes, Al, the party you lead is taking money from the industry that killed your sister. Why not ask the DCCC not to accept Big Tobacco bucks?

Through the four days, no prominent party member was willing to point to the naked man in the room -- except for Senator Russ Feingold. The evening before the Democratic proceedings began, he delived a pumped-up speech at the Shadow Convention and attacked his own party for transforming the convention into a week-long moneychase. He actually appeared offended.

"This convention," he complained, "is all about money and especially corporate money." He called the conventions "corporate trade shows" and griped that the United States "has devolved from a representative democracy to a corporate democracy." It's not often you see a senior party man attack the party's corporate contributors by name and describe its convention as a total, absolute sham. He urged his party to forego fundraising during conventions. "Give us our convention back," Feingold declared.

The party did not seem taken with Feingold and this message; it shoved him into a three-minute-long speaking slot at the convention in the afternoon, when few Americans would be watching. If his legislation is the first measure Gore intends to send to Congress, why not let its author champion it from the podium in primetime? (Liberal night was reserved for the paleo-libs, like Kennedy, not the latest wave of progressives, such as Feingold, Senator Paul Wellstone, and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr.)

By the way, the act of sending a piece of legislation to Congress has more symbolic than actual value. The bill is already in the works in Congress. It is the Republicans who have been blocking it. But when the Democrats controlled Congress during the first half of Clinton's first term, they did not pass campaign finance reform -- and at that time campaign reform was no priority of the Clinton-Gore Adminsitration.

One of the lovely things about political conventions is that they afford one the opportunity to view a party in the wild. Up close and personal. (If you have the appropriate credentials, of course.) I was fortunate enough to be hosting a radio show during convention week and was broadcasting live from Talk Show Row, where friendly Democratic Party media volunteers helped producers book Democratic guests. Somehow, I ended up with Donna Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, and Terry McAuliffe, the convention chairman and number-one political fundraiser in the history of the known universe. (He says he has raised up to $400 million -- he doesn't have an exact count -- for Clinton- and Democratic-related causes.) It was illuminating -- though not encouraging -- to question them about the money-grab under way in Los Angeles.

I asked Shalala whether the millions of dollars in corporate contributions from the health care and pharmaceutical industries affected the party's performance on health care matters. "I don't have any evidence after seven-and-a-half years that we're influenced by the industry," she replied. "I think the Republicans are influenced by the industry. That's why we haven't been able to pass a patient bill of rights or gotten a pharmaecutical benefit [for Medicare]."

That would mean, then, that Senator Feingold is wrong when he contends there is corrupting influence. "He's not wrong," Shalala said, "and we need to clean up campaign finance reform. You asked me specifically about our positions on health care. We do need to clean up this money-and-politics mess ... They stop things from getting done because the parties ... have got forces pounding on them from either sides."

So Shalala sees no influence in the health care area, but she concedes action is limited because both parties are battered by special-interest "forces." Shalala went on to provide an example: privacy and health care. Noting that Congress was unable to write regulations governing the handling of medical records, she remarked: "They had all these years, three or four years, to issue regualtions. With interest groups pounding on them, they couldn't agree on them."

And there's pounding on both sides of the aisle?

"Going on on both sides of the aisle," she said. "Let me assure you this issue of campaign finance reform is as much a Democratic issue as it is a Republican issue." Then how does this square with her first response, when she asserted her party has not been influenced by the donations of the health care and drug industries? If there is no influence asserted, as she initially maintained, why does the system have to be cleaned up?

Al Gore and the Democrats are in a bind. They wish to use reform and a mild form of populism as clubs in their battle against George W. Bush. But they do not want to acknowledge the consequences of their own relationship to the money of the powerful.

McAuliffe is adamant in arguing two points: the Democrats want to clean up the campaign system and the Democrats are not unduly influenced by campaign contributions. Given the orgy of corporate fundraising in Los Angeles, I asked him, could he really say that all this business money does not affect how the party copes with certain issues? "Well," he said, "the first thing I want to tell you ... is that the convention is paid for by the federal government ... They give us $15 million ... Now, there are different parties that are thrown around town that corporations do and so forth." But, he added, the Democratic Party was mounting only one fundraiser the entire week -- the Barbra Streisand event -- and the Republican Party in Philadelphia held many. "As I say, if the Liberty Bell wasn't bolted down, they would have sold that as a party favor."

Heed McAuliffe's adherence to the Rule One of Spin: don't answer the question, use the query as an opportunity to make your own argument. Then blur facts. Perhaps it was true that the Democratic National Committee was conducting but one fundraiser. But various other Democratic entities -- including the campaign committees of the House and Senate -- were holding fundraisers. And the party was staging many events for donors who cut their checks before the week of the convention. (Remember, the Clinton gang claimed the White House coffees were not fundraisers, since no money was exchanged at the time. However, if you gave enough money, you were rewarded with the chance to sip with the President.)

And then there were the millions of dollars that corporations and a few unions contributed to the convention host committee. But that was nothing to fret about, McAuliffe said: "We need money to pay for our production costs."

Through the week, the convention floor was crowded with delegates, many from labor unions, and the skyboxes were loaded with corporate lobbyists. Didn't McAuliffe see a gap between the funding base and the activist base of his party? "This is my seventh convention," he answered. "And if had my option, I would rather be on the floor where the action is. Sure, you sit up in your skybox and you might get a beer. But at the end of the day, that doesn't change anything. So they get some popcorn and some beer. Big deal. On the floor is where the action is. That's where the action is. That's where you're voting on our platform. That's where you're supporting Al Gore. That's where I'd like to be ... So what if some people have some boxes and they get some free beer and peanuts. Who cares?" For the record, on at least one night, in the skyboxes for the big donors, the spread was not beer and peanuts, but fine pan-Asian cuisine.

Okay, I thought, try another tack. What about that Feingold speech at the Shadow Convention? Didn't he nail the party? "I love everything that Russ Feingold talks about," McAuliffe said. "I've raised a lot of money. I'll tell you we need to get rid of soft money. There's too much money in the political system. It's a corrupting influence. Get rid of it. But you know what, [the Republicans] won't send a bill for President Clinton or next-President Gore to sign. They won't do it. They will not pass McCain-Feingold. Forget legislation. Al Gore put a challenge down to Gov Bush ... he said let's just you and I agree. No more soft money. We will stop together. You know, we never heard back from George Bush. They raise millions more than we do. They are hypocrites ... Get rid of soft money. It's wrong. But until we do it, we can't unilaterally say oh, goodness gracious let's just stop and see if the Republicans will stop."

A-ha, it is a "corrupting influence." But McAuliffe won't say how. Still, that means he is a party to the corruption of the political system -- which he won't admit. But I took another swing. As the bigfoot responsible for the message of the convention, how do you think Al Gore can run as the candidate of the-people-versus-the-powerful when it is the powerful who are underwriting a host of activities for the Democrats across town during the convention?

"They are funding activities after we leave this Staples Arena, after eight o'clock," McAuliffe responded. "Just as you are not going to hold me accountable for these parties, you sure as heck are not going to hold Al Gore accountable about who's throwing parties. You're making a big ado about nothing. The action in Los Angeles is inside the Staples. Who cares who's having a party? I don't think Al Gore gives a whit about who's buying people pizza. Forget it."

It's only about pizza. What else can he say? Hey, I'm selling the party to highest bidder, but when we get control, we'll fix this lousy, corrupt pay-to-play system.

The Republicans used their convention to send a message: look at all these black and Hispanic people we know, we can't be so bad. If Gore's message is, I'll be your Superman and fight the evil special-interests, then Al Gore and Terry McAuliffe should have pitched a very different LA story.

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