Politics and Money: Search for Dirt Isn't the Point

Now is the time to declare a moratorium on the way we are currently thinking and talking about campaign finance reform. Enough is enough. In the rush toward uncovering wrong-doing and jockeying for attention for competing solutions, we have skipped over the most fundamental of questions central to the issue of money and politics. The debate is on a reckless path, squeezing out people's hope for action that will make a difference and further deepening Americans' frustration with politics.

In his Sept. 13 radio address, President Clinton said, "The candidates themselves are caught up in a fund raising arms race, spending more and more time raising more and more money, which is bound to raise more questions in the public's mind." That is true, but it is not the whole story.

A few days ago a cab driver in Dayton, Ohio, said to me, "What happened in the past, just let go of it. Let's get on with it." His message is clear: More negative news, charges and counter-charges, high-visibility investigations and posturing will no longer cut it, if they ever did.

There is much merit to the analysis that our citizenry is at best indifferent to the Senate and pending House hearings; tuned out to what appear as attempts to make the story of Al Gore's phone calls into a compelling, juicy soap opera, and turned off by all the hand-wringing.

The public is dissatisfied, disillusioned and disengaged on this issue because it sees those individuals directly involved as obsessed with looking through the rear-view mirror and living in the past. The public watches the debate and wonders if the nation will ever attend to what must happen in order to move the country forward.

When one sweeps away all the noise, people's basic and profound concerns appear. We know from our own long-term research that Americans care deeply about the challenges around campaign finance.

Why? Because they tell us it is an issue that speaks to the kind of politics they want in this nation. They say it strikes right at the core of some of our nation's political values - such as fairness (can we please hear all the different sides of an issue so that we can make up our minds?), equal representation (can we help determine who gets to be at the table?) and leadership (what are the genuine motivations of our country's leaders?).

So lets put an end to the reckless path on which we find ourselves. Investigations may be a worthy public endeavor, but they alone won't get us to action that will make a difference. We must work within a starkly different context on this issue; we must engage in these most fundamental questions:

What kind of politics do we seek to create? This is the context in which Americans talk about money and politics. It may seem like a lofty question, but Americans do articulate a clear sense of their aspirations for the way politics should go.

What role should money play in reaching our political aspirations? This step must come before technical solutions, a discussion we are drowning in today. People tell us, for example, that they want to create a vibrant marketplace of ideas, where many sides of an issue can be aired. What does that suggest for how money should be used in the political process? Creating something new around campaign finance reform takes a different mindset than trying to control the existing damage.

Are leaders willing to hear the public's voice? Will they seek to understand how people think and talk about, for instance, the two questions outlined above? Will they listen for how people are defining this challenge, and where people seem ready to act and where they choose to remain ambivalent? Simplistic polls, acrimonious town meetings, and empty rhetoric won't do; leaders and citizens must seriously engage on this issue.

Do we wish to exercise public character? Perhaps we'd all say yes. But public character is having the courage to look ahead to what we must do, not just behind at what we've done; to engage on these fundamental questions, rather than to pretend and beat around the bush; and to seek the political will for public action.

No simple solution exists to the money and politics challenge. But to continue down the current course is a march of folly that will produce nothing more than a deeper sense of frustration among people with American politics. "Lets get on with it."

* Richard C. Harwood is president of The Harwood Group, a nonpartisan public issues research firm based in Bethesda, Md.

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