Throwing fake punches in campaign-finance reform

Al Gore met with Jesse the Body/Mind Ventura last weekend and compared cowboy boots. Mr. Gore stood next to Minnesota's populist governor and announced that their boots were similar, except that Jesse's were made of ostrich and this meant they were "cooler."

The scene couldn't have been much odder. It was Brooks Brothers going to seek the support of black leather. Mr. "Earth in the Balance" hoping to catch some of the shine off of Mr. "Ain't Got Time to Bleed."

Still, something about the meeting was just so right. The two men talked about campaign finance reform and its role in the campaign. And at the moment, that debate has about all the honesty of a professional wrestling match.

Gore charges out of his corner and attempts to apply the funding headlock - no soft money or short ads, only debates. But W. (actually not a bad wrestling name) counters with the Buddhist jackhammer.

The crowd goes wild, but notice that the two guys seem unfazed by it all. No visible scars. And suddenly it's clear why. These two guys have been throwing fake punches, because neither is really in a position to do a lot. Both benefit mightily from the system as it is.

From a mere 65 people, a group of donors called "Pioneers," Mr. Bush had raised $4.4 million by the end of 1999. The names on the list represent many of the nation's largest companies, including Blue Cross, SkyTel, and Ernst & Young.

And Gore too has club. The 13 people in his inner circle have raised about $1.5 million as of January 1. Some of the people on that list: the chairman of Saban Entertainment and the chairman of the Learning Company.

These are facts it seems we sometimes forget in Washington.

For the past three years, the media has focused intensely on Gore's 1996 fund-raising trip to a California Buddhist temple from which illegal contributions were funnelled to Democratic candidates. An investigation of the incident led to the conviction of a campaign contributor. But all told, that fund-raiser brought in somewhere between $65,000 and $140,000 in illegal contributions, chump change in the world of presidential politics. (One can only wonder if the story would have been as big if the word "Buddhist" wasn't involved, or if the surnames mentioned were Murphy or Smith, instead of Hsia.)

Obviously those caught violating campaign-finance laws should be punished. But in all the talk about monasteries and Buddhists, we lose perspective about what's important where the issue is concerned. The problems with campaign finance are broad and systemic. Violations aren't the real problem.

The real problem is that Gore and Bush raised more than $6 million with the help of just 78 influential people. Regardless of who wins, Americans will be left to wonder about decisions. Is a break to a specific industry or company some kind of quid pro quo, or is it simply done because it is believed to be the right thing to do? We'll never know, and that's why the system needs to be changed.

Which brings us back to the main event. Gore says he has learned from his 1996 mistakes and wants real change. He says he wants to pick up McCain's flag and carry it through to November. He adds, however, that he can't make the changes because if he unilaterally disarms he will be crushed. There's a certain amount of logic to this, but his post-McCain conversion seems a bit too perfectly timed. Picking up the flag is a good idea if you want the troops to follow. But the real question is how long he will hold on to it if and when he arrives in the White House.

Probably not long enough. Campaign-finance laws are difficult things to change.

As for Bush, his response is worse. He has already brought up the Buddhist temple fiasco more than a few times (that won't change), but his solution is to basically keep the system as is. He wouldn't set any limits on how much money individuals could give to political parties. And at one debate he actually said there should be no campaign-finance limits at all, just full disclosure.

This is a bad suggestion on its face, but it's particularly untenable when there are barely enough reporters to keep track of conflicts of interest now. Even if they could manage to find all the needles in the haystack there'd still be the problem of getting the story in the paper.

Everyone likes talking about how money ruins politics, but few like reading about it. The stuff about Buddhist temples is just so much more compelling. That's why few politicians seriously propose acting on it. And that's one more way the whole thing is like a wrestling match. In the end, someone wins and someone loses, but none of it means very much.

The campaign finance debate has all the honesty of a pro wrestling match.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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