The "insurgent" presidential candidates that put the greatest emphasis on campaign-finance reform may have faded, but that issue should endure in campaign 2000. A democracy cannot let politicians be more influenced by money than voters.
Since Republicans usually can raise more money than Democrats, Al Gore has shifted his rhetorical fire toward the "soft money" being raised by George W. Bush. But he's also seen how Republican John McCain won over independent voters on this issue.
"Soft money" is, in theory, to be used for only "party building" rather than promotion of a specific candidate. That distinction exempts a candidate from federal limits on campaign contributions. In practice, most soft dollars pay for ads that benefit a party's candidates, though they may exclude the words "vote for."
There's more than one way around the federal limits. Wealthy backers of Mr. Bush recently spent a few million to run so-called "issue ads" that praised the Texas governor's environmental record and disparaged John McCain's. Such "independent expenditures" are theoretically aimed at issues, not candidates, and are supposed to be free of any coordination with the politician who benefits from them. But these ads, like the parties' soft-money spending, all aim at the same goal: electing someone and defeating someone else.
Such methods, of course, are as familiar to Democrats as Republicans. Common Cause, the nonprofit watchdog organization that closely tracks campaign contributions, reports that the Democratic Party and its various committees collected a little over $46 million in soft money in 1999. The Republicans did a little better, raking in more than $49 million. These figures represent nearly a doubling of the soft-money take in 1995, a comparable pre-election year.
As an issue, campaign-finance reform can be treacherous ground for candidates. Mr. Gore has to step into this arena gingerly. The controversy springing from the soft-money bazaar run by the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996 is sure to be fanned by Governor Bush - and it should be.
What would these candidates, both of whom have been forced to stake out positions on reforms, do if elected? Would Gore really ban soft money?
If Bush really feels that full disclosure of contributors is all the regulation that's needed, let him make a compelling argument for that. Above all, let's hear how they'd end the deception inherent in the current system.
As the race shifts gears toward the election, and spending revs even higher, there may be a tendency to leave the campaign-finance reform issue behind. Citizens should not allow that to happen.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society