Reform School

Election '04

The rhetoric about the negative impact of special interest money in politics has increased quite a few decibels in the presidential election, most notably with an attack ad against front-running Democratic Sen. John Kerry from President Bush's campaign.

But if there's a candidate in this race who stands out as the captive of special interests, it's George W. Bush.

Under the current campaign finance laws, all candidates must raise significant sums of money from wealthy donors in order to win. That is why it is important for voters to look not just at where candidates raise money, but at where the candidates stand on overhauling our political fundraising laws. Sen. Kerry was the lead sponsor with the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of the Wellstone-Kerry bill, modeled on successful and comprehensive public financing laws in Maine and Arizona. Gov. Howard Dean signed into law a full public financing bill in Vermont, and has proposed dramatic reforming of the presidential system.

All the leading Democrats signed the Presidential Public Financing Reform Pledge, offered by a coalition of six national reform groups, to fix the presidential system. Bush so far has refused to sign, and has not offered any substantive solutions of his own. Though he campaigned in 2000 as a "reformer with results," he begrudgingly signed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act while holding his nose literally in the dark, before jumping aboard Air Force One to fly to a special interest fundraiser. The symbolism was a little hard to miss.

Moreover, Bush is the person most responsible for undermining the partial public funding presidential program. While Kerry and Dean also opted out of the system this election, it is clear that Bush's early decisions in 1999 and 2003 to forgo presidential public funding and spending limits are the most important events in the system's decline.

But Democratic candidates' attacks on each other might help the Bush campaign's efforts and lead Americans to think that all politicians are equally indebted to big money. Their fratricidal behavior makes it more difficult for voters to draw distinctions between who is for reform and who is against it, nullifying one of the most powerful issues they have against Bush in the general election�that his White House is captive of special interests.

The record is a clear one today, but the Bush campaign will try to obfuscate by criticizing their opponent. The Bush Administration provides the clearest example of pay-to-play politics since the Gilded Age of robber barons and railroad trusts.

Former oil, gas and mining industry lobbyists staff key posts in the administration. They have a record of secrecy and privileged access for contributors in policy-making meetings. The Bush campaign encourages wealthy donors to bundle hundreds of thousands of dollars together, while keeping track of who delivers the big money.

The paybacks are a matter of record. For example:

* Halliburton Corporation gets a no-bid, multi-billion dollar Iraq contract, while continuing to pay Vice President Dick Cheney's deferred compensation.
* The Clean Air Act gets gutted while executives for electric utilities raise millions for Bush.
* The pharmaceutical industry contributes heavily to Bush's campaign as he signs a Medicare bill protecting their profits at taxpayer expense.

This is a pattern that emerges from an obscene and excessive race for campaign cash. President Bush has raised at least $142 million so far, and is well on his way to collecting and unleashing a quarter of a billion dollars for his re-election efforts.

If the Democratic candidates tar each other with the same brush they're using on Bush, how will the eventual nominee effectively and credibly point out Bush's wrongdoing later?

The Democrats threaten more self-inflicted damage than they realize if, in their efforts to propel their own individual candidacies, they blur this significant difference between themselves and President Bush and obscure their own prescriptions for change. And with Bush getting into the act with this latest e-mail attack ad, voters need to be prepared to sort through the difference between the rhetoric and the reality on reform, and hold the 2004 victor accountable�regardless of which candidate it may be.

David Donnelly is director of Public Campaign Action Fund's Campaign Money Watch.

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