Hottest issue of the campaign Political funding: Money from special interests reaches obscene levels, spurs reform.

November 03, 1996

AH! THE PIETY of it all. As the most heavily financed election ($1.6 billion) in history draws to its close, the voters are treated to the spectacle of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole pleading for campaign finance reform. It comes close to the old joke of "stop me before I kill." Only worse. These are two politicians who have made a killing in their last race for public office and now propose that the cops move in on their successors.

True to form, President Clinton is more brazen and Senator Dole more clumsy in trying to deal with the only issue that is making a real impact on fed-up voters.

Consider, first, the tactics of the Democratic incumbent. Lately his party has been wallowing in scandals for taking lots of money from foreign sources. Mr. Clinton won't answer questions about it. But in a speech in California Friday, he decried the practice of accepting contributions from non-citizens and from corporations that are completely owned by foreign interests -- which, of course, is precisely what his operatives have been doing.

In the mode of his famous confession that he once smoked a joint without inhaling, the nation's chief executive officer solemnly declared: "We have played by the rules, but I know and you know we need to change the rules."

Mr. Clinton's "bridge to the 21st century" now would supposedly include bans on political action committees, on "soft money" funneled through political parties, on foreign money and on contributions to political parties from corporations and labor unions.

Earlier on the same day, Republican challenger Dole also came out against foreign contributions, PACS and soft money. Trouble was, he had filibustered against the PAC and soft money proposals many times in his Senate career -- even opposing last June a reform proposal sponsored by his Senate pal, John McCain, and endorsed by a president who knew it would not apply to this campaign.

Ann McBride, head of the non-partisan watchdog group, Common Cause, correctly commented that "neither Bob Dole nor Bill Clinton comes into this with clean hands." "The magnitude and blatantness and the shamelessness of the interests giving money, and their cavalier attitudes," she said, "have brought us to a crescendo of sleaziness."

While Ms. McBride thinks "the stage is set for real reform," we are not so sure. One generation's reform can become the next generation's nightmare, as witness the post-Watergate do-gooder laws that set up PACs and included soft-money loopholes. And the courts have resisted limits on campaign spending because of First Amendment/free-speech concerns raised across the ideological spectrum.

Ross Perot has been a strong voice for reform. But as multi-billionaire, he symbolizes a disturbing trend in which the very wealthy try to buy their way into public office. His money turned his third party into a vehicle for private ambition, not an alternative to the two-party system.

This campaign has added nothing of substance to the public dialogue on taxation, entitlements, foreign policy, etc. But if the American people get mad enough about the money tyranny that is undermining their political system, perhaps elected officials will at last come through with some reforms that liberate them and their constituents.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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