Sunday, May 21, 2000

Bush, Gore latch onto campaign reform

By Chuck Raasch
Gannett News Service

        First in a weekly series of stories on the major issues that will be the foundation of the 2000 presidential race.

        WASHINGTON — Mike Morton has a dilemma.

        The Nashua, N.H., house painter supported campaign-finance reform advocate John McCain in the New Hampshire primary, but is having trouble, with Mr. McCain out of the picture, seeing real reform possibilities in either Al Gore or George W. Bush.

        Mr. Morton leans toward the vice president, partly because the record $80 million Mr. Bush has raised — as beneficiary of the most prodigious money-amassing machine in U.S. political history — doesn't appear to give the Texas governor much incentive to push reform. But Mr. Morton is troubled by Mr. Gore's involvement in the Democrats' 1996 fund-raising excesses.

        “I am thinking it is possible he was just playing the game by the rules that have been set so far, maybe bending them, actually, in this case,” Mr. Morton said of Mr. Gore's infamous visit to a Buddhist temple fund-raising event in 1996, and the Democrats' use of the White House to contact and woo big donors.

        Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore both talk their versions of reform, but the echoes seem to be fading elsewhere. Ross Perot's crusade has Balkanized into warring camps, with Pat Buchanan trying to seize control of the remnants of Mr. Perot's Reform Party.

        The Republican congressional revolutionaries of the mid-1990s, who imposed lobbying and outside-income limits on themselves, show no interest in changing the way their campaigns are financed — especially because their party continues to rake in tens of millions of unlimited soft-money donations.

        Jesse Ventura, the anti-politician elected governor of Minnesota on a shoestring budget and feather boa image, has bolted the Reform Party.

        So big questions loom:

        • Was Mr. McCain's reform message that appealed to so many independent and centrist voters during the winter primaries merely a mirage?

        • Has a kind of resigned acceptance set in that big money is endemic in politics, so we might as well learn to live with it?

        • And are the alternatives — taxpayer-financed campaigns, for instance — better ways to fund modern campaigns?

        Some think the real action will be in the states, where a slow reform movement has begun.

        “I don't think anybody in Washington has any credibility as a reformer,” said Celinda Lake, who polls for Democrats in Congress. She said many Americans view reform from Washington as “putting criminals in charge of their jail sentences.”

        Republican pollster Ed Goeas says he is not even sure serious campaign reform would do what its backers say — restore higher confidence in government.

        “The problem you have is that this country was built on a basic distrust of government, and that is a good thing,” Mr. Goeas said.

        But many Americans also tell pollsters they think there is a policy payout to big donors who invest in politicians. And with some estimating that $3 billion will flow through campaigns and political parties this year, the stakes are getting higher.

        In the wake of Mr. McCain's short but intense presidential challenge, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore have come up with their versions of campaign-finance reform.

        Mr. Bush's plan has been attacked as simply squeezing one end of a balloon. He would ban the unlimited soft-money contributions from labor unions and corporations, but not from individuals, which is where critics say the big bucks simply would be re-directed.

        Mr. Bush supports “paycheck protection” requiring union members and shareholders to approve use of their dues for political purposes. But critics said this would only increase the donating power of wealthy individuals.

        Mr. Bush also wants to raise the $1,000-per-election donation limit to individual candidates. He suggests inflation alone should increase the limit, imposed a quarter-century ago in post-Watergate reforms, to about $3,400. Raising individual limits, Mr. Bush argues, would lessen the need for candidates to spend as much time raising money in smaller bites.

        Mr. Bush also would require so-called “third party” organizations to fully and rapidly disclose the sources of their donations — something they don't have to do now.

        “I think we ought to make it easier for individuals to give,” Mr. Bush said in a recent interview with GNS. “I think we ought to raise the limits and have instant disclosure. ... I've got near real-time disclosure (of donations) on my Web page. I believe in as much disclosure as possible.”

        Mr. Bush said he simply has honest disagreements with Mr. McCain, who wants to eradicate all soft-money donations.

        “I'm a reformer on the issue,” Mr. Bush told GNS.

        But some campaign-reform advocates scoff.

        “Bush's proposal is phony reform,” said Ellen Miller, president of Public Campaign, a nonpartisan interest group that supports public financing of campaigns.

        “He only put it out when he saw the salience of this issue with John McCain, so he could at least call himself a reformer,” she added. “What Bush wants to do only exacerbates the aspects of the current system. He raises contribution limits. He bans certain kinds of soft money, but not the real stuff, which is money that comes from individuals.

        “The fact that he was forced to put forth an issue says he is sensitive to the issue and knows its salience, but it does more harm than good.”

        She was less critical of Mr. Gore's “democracy endowment,” saying it is “philosophically quite solid,” but nonetheless “impractical.”

        Mr. Gore wants a $7 billion account, funded by civic-minded corporations and individuals who would get 100 percent tax deductions for their donations. Candidates for Senate and House then could draw on the annual interest of the fund to pay for their campaigns, so long as they agreed not to raise money privately. The amount they would get would be a formula based on how many people live in their states or districts and how costly it is to campaign there.

        Mr. Gore also would require broadcasters to give each candidate for federal office five minutes of air time each night for a month before an election. He also would use the power of the presidency to push for Mr. McCain's ban on soft-money contributions to political parties, which the Arizona senator has proposed in conjunction with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

        But critics said the reforms concentrate too heavily on Congress, and do little to limit contributions to presidential primaries. And others worry that some aspects of Mr. Gore's proposal — such as requiring TV to give equal time to politicians who are the subject of so-called “issue advertising” — would not pass constitutional muster.

        Mr. Gore's biggest problem is he comes to the reform debate with raw wounds from 1996.

        This is the vice president who claimed there was “no controlling legal authority” to prevent him from soliciting donations via telephone from his White House office.

        This is the Gore who appeared at the 1996 Buddhist temple event, where nuns and monks who had taken vows of poverty were used as conduits for political donations.

        Mr. Gore is portraying himself as a flawed man who has seen the reform light.

        “I understand the doubts about whether I personally am serious on campaign reform,” Mr. Gore said when he announced his “democracy endowment” idea in late March.

        “And I know I may be an imperfect messenger for this cause. But the real wounds will be to our democracy itself unless we address this problem.”

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