Here We Go Again

Yes, we know you may be tired of this subject. But each week some new dollop of information makes the campaign finance story just a little more remarkable than the week before.

Remarkable? Well, bear with us.

The White House fund-raising tapes now include a segment from December 1995, in which President Clinton virtually sketches out his campaign's "soft money" strategy. That is, the use of unlimited contributions from unions, corporations, and individuals to Democratic Party organizations (national and state) to pay for "issue" advertisements. Such ads, the president then proclaimed, were boosting his standing in the polls, even in parts of the country where he'd never done well before.

"Soft money" contributions to parties, you may recall, are supposed to be used for party-building activities. That can include ads designed to highlight issues of importance to the party. The ads have to stop short of endorsing specific candidates, however. The Clinton-Gore campaign drew that line with consummate craft. Some ads lambasted the Republicans for "shutting down the government." Others listed projects like reforming welfare, cutting taxes, and protecting Medicare, then summed up, "President Clinton says get it done."

All were clever, and very effective, ways of saying "Vote for Clinton," without actually saying it.

Was this a breach of federal campaign law, which is designed to hold candidates who receive public funding within clearly prescribed spending limits? Or a shrewd, if ethically dubious, way of working just within the letter of the law?

Those questions, and lots of others, will best be answered by an independent counsel. The case for appointing such an investigator, like the story itself, builds by the week.

And there are issues here that demand attention no matter how the legality question is eventually decided. Public trust is at stake. How much faith can Americans have in an electoral system that allows virtually unlimited investment in "political futures" by corporations, unions, and other powerful interests? Laws have been in place for most of this century to prevent just such mega-flows of money into politics. The purpose, in 1997 as in 1907, is to restrain the distortion of the public's business by narrow self-interest.

A recent report by the watchdog group Common Cause traces the legislative victories recently chalked up by companies that made significant soft money contributions in the last electoral cycle. There may be alternative explanations for their success, but the parallel between who gives and who gets is at least disturbing.

Need we say it again? Soft money should go. The mechanism to accomplish that, the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill, is at hand. The majority in Congress (of both parties) hasn't yet shown the good sense to pass it. (The president would have no choice but to sign it, even as some of his party's strategists wince.) The rest of us, meanwhile, can let our elected officials in Washington know we want the current charade, with its illusory limits on campaign donations, to end.

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