Sunday, March 26, 2000

Praise reform, but pass the cash




BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Watch what we do, not what we say. John Mitchell, Richard Nixon's attorney general and husband of the loquacious Martha, probably didn't realize it at the time, but when he said that about the newly minted Nixon administration in 1969, he was mouthing one of the inalterable truths of politics.

        In politics, talk is cheap. What matters most is not what politicians say they will do, but what they do; and the two often fail to jibe.

        Enter Al Gore.

        This month, the vice president watched as Arizona Sen. John McCain dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. But by then Mr. McCain had lighted a fire under millions of independent voters and moderate Republicans with his call for real campaign finance reform, to put government back in the hands of the people instead of the special interests who buy and sell politicians like Pokemon cards.

        Those McCain people have to vote for somebody this fall, the vice president thought, and it might as well be me.

        So, in a not-too-subtle bid to win the McCain vote, Mr. Gore donned sackcloth-and- ashes and performed a bit of

        self-flagellation, talking about how wrong it was for him to have been raising campaign money in a Buddhist temple and making fund-raising calls in his office.

        Mr. Gore pledged eternal fealty to campaign finance reform. He called for the banning of “soft money,” the unregulated wads of cash that political parties and other collect to spend on “educational” advertising that are really thinly veiled attacks on the opposition.

        But before this modern-day Saul had taken a few baby steps down the road to Damascus, he found himself in the Amberley Village living room of lawyer Stan Chesley, where a handful of Mr. Chesley's friends had coughed up about $500,000 in — excuse the expression — soft money for the Democratic National Committee.

        Mr. Gore, no stranger to irony, seemed in his luncheon remarks to be aware of the awkwardness of calling for a ban on soft money one week and raising big buckets full of it the next. So he threw a line in his speech about how, this fall, the Democrats shouldn't “lay down and abandon the field” to the Republicans.

        And, speaking of Republicans, they probably shouldn't be crowing too loudly about the fix Mr. Gore finds himself in.

        If the past few presidential elec tions are any indication, the Republicans and their allies in business will drum up several times as much “soft money” for the fall campaign as the Democrats. They will be going into the fall campaign with a pot calling the kettle black as their standard-bearer.

        George W. Bush has mouthed some of the same pieties about campaign finance reform as Mr. Gore.

        But some of Mr. Bush's Republican friends have set up a “Victory Fund” that has raised at least $5.2 million, with some of the money being kicked directly to the Bush campaign and the rest going to state parties for direct mail, phone banks and other pro-Bush efforts. It is a particularly clever and legal way to get around the campaign contribution limits.

        When Mr. Bush brings up the Buddhist temple affair, the Gore campaign is likely to counter with “Republicans for Clean Air,” a committee set up by two Texas billionaires who apparently want to hug whatever trees are left in George W. Bush's Lone Star State.

        These two fellows spent about $2.5 million on TV advertising in the New York and Ohio presidential primaries in a somewhat spurious attack on Mr. McCain's environmental record.

        Since it was done by an “independent” committee, Mr. Bush could wash his hands of the matter, and Mr. McCain was left scrambling to answer attacks that Mr. Bush didn't even have to pay for.

        So, the question is, where will campaign finance reform rank on the agenda of a President Gore or President Bush?

        The answer: Somewhere below U.S. relations with the Republic of Nauru.

        Howard Wilkinson covers politics. His column appears Sundays. He can be reached at (513) 768-8388 or at hwilkinson@enquirer.com.