Soft Money Reform: A New GOP Platform?

George W. Bush and the Republicans rule. The Democrats are being rolled by Bush's tax-cut crusade. The Austin Power has seized control of Washington's agenda, unveiling an education package and a faith-based initiative that both drew praise from across-the-aisle.

Whereforth art the Democrats? They have been busy cleaning up after Bill Clinton -- whose mess-ridden exit was a fitting gift to the party he so often shafted, while leading it to minority status -- and occupied with the important matter of installing Clinton's handmaiden/fundraiser Terry McAuliffe as chairman of the party. What dominates the news about the Democrats is intraparty squabbling over why they lost the last election (wake-up call: you guys got more votes than Team Bush) and the far-from-amusing and never-ending antics of the Lost Boy from Hope.

Clinton's final job approval ratings may be the envy of any former head of state, but he's not wearing well. A president is supposed to become more popular once he's out of the office. Go ask Jimmy Carter. Political predictions are dicey, but don't bet on Clinton becoming a highly-regarded moral figure. And as long as Elvis is in the building, the Dems are going find it tough to win attention for any music beyond the howls of this hound dog.

Time for the Democrats to look at Clinton as a cancer and consider amputation -- or euthanasia. Instead, they have validated and reinforced his in-front-of-the-scene role by deeding the party apparatus to McAuliffe, the tainted mega-fundraiser who calls Bill Clinton his best bud.

With the Democrats tied up in knots, the GOP of George the Genius has a chance to demolish the party of W. Jefferson Clinton. How so? By becoming a champion of campaign finance reform.

On the matter of campaign finance reform, the Republicans for years have acted like the old over-my-dead-body segregationists of the South. Bush the Elder vetoed reform legislation. The Republican leadership in the Senate -- with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at the helm -- waged fierce filibusters to prevent a vote on modest reform.

But next month, the reformers will get another shot. In a showdown with the White House and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senator John McCain forced Lott to promise that in March the Senate would take up the reform bill McCain has been pressing with Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. It is only because McCain has starpower of his own that the issue will hit the Senate floor so soon, against the wishes of the Bush Administration, McConnell and Lott. (In fact, McCain, who also recently introduced a bipartisan Patient Bill of Rights that conflicts with Bush's pro-business approach, is doing more than any Democrat to derail the Bush Express.)

The centerpiece of the McCain bill is a ban on soft money -- the large donations (sometimes over $100,000) that corporations, unions, and wealthy people hand to the parties. These contributions are not supposed to aid directly congressional and presidential candidates. The law restricts individual donations to candidates to $1000 per election (aka hard money). It wouldn't be logical to have such a limit -- which was designed to ensure no donor could gain too much influence with a politician -- if a company, labor group or well-heeled person could send $100,000 to a party and say, use this dough to elect candidate so-and-so. Consequently, soft money is supposed to underwrite only what's known as "party building" activities.

Of course, the system doesn't work this way. Both parties rely on soft money to pay for ads that feature their candidates. (Clinton and McAuliffe did much to advance this loophole-exploiting tactic.) The parties avoid legal trouble as long as the ads don't expressly instruct people to vote for or against a candidate. But a party can spend millions of dollars in soft money for commercials in which its presidential candidate talks about the wonders of his economic program without asking the viewer to vote for him. That makes soft money about as good as hard money. It's just as green -- and it comes in bigger bundles.

The McCain-Feingold legislation does not contain an absolute ban on soft money. It would outlaw soft money contributions to the national parties. But soft money would still flow to state parties in states where that is legal. Under McCain-Feingold, the state parties could not use these bucks for congressional and presidential elections. But clever bookkeepers of both parties will find away around that.

Still, McCain-Feingold is a step in a good direction, even if it permits private money -- hard money -- to continue dominating the campaign finance system.

Back to the scheme the GOP should be hatching: Over the past several years, the anti-reform Republicans have avoided an obvious opportunity McCain-Feingold presented them. They should have agreed to a soft-money ban, for the GOP's true advantage lies in hard money. Look at the figures. In the 2000 election cycle, the Republican Party bagged $245,966,463 in soft money contributions; the Democrats, $245,096,175. As close as the election in Florida. (A Naderite might quip that there's only $870,288 worth of difference between the two parties.)

But in hard money, the GOPers had a 1.6-to-1 advantage over the Dems: $345,087,003 to $206,921,970. During the 1996 campaign, these numbers followed a similar pattern with the Republicans out-collecting the Democrats $43.5 million in soft money but $157 million in hard money.

The Republicans could mightily enhance their position if they accepted an end to the soft-money arms race but continued to compete with the Democrats on the hard-money turf. But they have not done so.

Was it out of principle, because they actually believe McConnell's high-handed rhetoric that political money is the equivalent of speech and should not be subject to restraint? (If the Republicans feel so passionately on this point, why have they not pressed to overturn all hard-money limits?) Perhaps they feared one reform could lead to another. Or that union volunteers would somehow overwhelm their $150-million advantage in hard money? In any event, they have forsaken the chance to jujitsu the Democrats, who have backed a soft-money ban.

This year the waters are more dangerous for the Democrats, and the opportunity even greater for the Republicans -- though at first glance that might not seem the case. With the new Senate, McCain has picked up a few more votes -- enough probably to break a filibuster and to provide a majority. He is looking good.

So what's an obstructionist Republican to do? Flip the script. Jump on the bandwagon and end federal soft-money, while retaining hard-money as it is. Better yet, there is a GOP move afoot to add to the McCain legislation a provision increasing the hard-money limits, possibly tripling them. A hard-money boost would sweeten the deal for Republicans. How devious they can be -- acceding to a soft-money ban, while setting the stage for pocketing more hard money.

The advocates of a hard-money raise assert it's only fair, since the $1000 limit was set in the 1970s and it has not been adjusted for inflation. That sounds reasonable. But only a tiny group of wealthy Americans are now able to max out at $1000. Increasing the limit would only grant the affluent more political power. If the individual limit were tripled, a married CEO with two grown children could donate $24,000 to a candidate ($3000 per person in both the primary and general elections). That's enough to win notice and special attention.

For those who pay close attention to campaign finance reform, a key question is, might McCain accept a hard-money raise in order to kill the soft-money beast? He could end up calculating that he has to swallow a hard-money increase to pull together a truly bipartisan majority. And if such a deal gets cut, will the good-guy lobbyists for reform -- Common Cause and Public Citizen -- go along?

If the final bill ends up with a hard-money hike, will the Democrats, who have trumpeted their support of McCain-Feingold to embarrass the Republicans, be able to turn tail and oppose a "reform" bill. Some Democrats might figure a hard-money raise would render their own fundraising easier -- even as it places their party at an overall disadvantage.

The Republicans are in a position to lay a trap for the Democrats and the reform lobbyists. If the Bush crowd really is as diabolically clever as they seem, they should be scheming with McConnell now to pass a faux reform measure that abolishes soft money on the federal level and permits the well-to-do to donate more in direct contributions to candidates. Bush could enhance the power of his corporate backers, sock it to the Democrats, and, once again, steal the mantle of reform from his nemesis, McCain. (Remember the Bush campaign slogan "a reformer with results" was introduced immediately after McCain whupped him in New Hampshire.) And the Democrats, the reform lobbyists, and maybe even McCain could find themselves in a jam.

The only way out for the Democrats and the reformers is to proclaim loudly and clearly, as the debate begins, that a hard-money increase is pernicious and an absolute deal-killer. So far, Bush has proven himself to be more savvy than many expected -- and more clever than the Democrats. He's had a helluva presidency, and the opposition is reeling. The campaign finance reform debate provides Bush another instance where he can try to outfox those folks who once thought of him as a ninny. If the Democrats and reformers don't want this corporate-funded, cowboy-hat president riding even taller in the saddle -- and perhaps riding for eight years -- they better start considering now how to cut him off at the hard-money pass.


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