Beyond the pale of shame

October 10, 1997|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- It's been a year since the campaign-finance scandal broke. Since then, everything's changed.

There has been a cascade of news disclosures, each more damaging than the last, showing fund-raising excesses within the Democratic National Committee and a river of money flowing through congressional politics. There have been ominous reports of Asian money. There has been the bald statement, made by the chairman of the Senate committee examining campaign finance, that the Chinese government had a plan to affect the outcome of the American elections. And now there are videotapes of the coffee klatches.

So far, all that has amounted to exactly nothing.

The scandal didn't affect the outcome of the 1996 presidential election. The hearings haven't proven a direct Chinese connection. The current debate on overhauling the campaign-finance laws is leading nowhere fast.

But that doesn't mean the political landscape is precisely the way it was last autumn, when the first charges about the prominence of money filled the brisk air.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore may face independent counsels examining their fund-raising practices: an annoyance, a distraction and maybe a political threat to a president who can't run for another term -- but a huge disadvantage to a vice president who had hoped to snag his party's presidential nomination with little effort.

"Some people would say we spent too much time on this," said Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a member of the committee examining the fund-raising scandal. "Maybe. But to me it's just another piece of evidence about how far off the track the system has gone and how much we were hanging up a 'For Sale' sign on the American government. We have always thought that wouldn't happen here."

In the past year we have seen, more plainly than ever before, how both Republican and Democratic campaigns are run, how money is raised, how the most powerful figures in the government are themselves given fund-raising assignments from their underlings, how peer pressure and petty rivalries have transformed a political system into a financial system.


The Democrats "went too far and broke the law," said Republican Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, a member of the Thompson committee. "They went too far in their zealousness in getting foreign money. But we can't prove in the committee that these dollars came from China."

But Mr. Lieberman, a Democrat on the committee, is willing to go further: "We have learned, conclusively, that money was coming in to the 1996 campaign from Asia in violation of the law. We know that with regard to private money. We have reason to believe that there was a plan at some level of the Chinese government to move money" into the American political system.

Even with those charges lingering, the attention right now is on the phone calls Mr. Gore made and the calls Mr. Clinton might have made, technical violations of a 114-year-old law, and not on broader issues.

Telephone calls to wealthy individuals have been singled out, but big-time solicitations before large groups in hotel ballrooms continue to this day.

The biggest effect of the campaign-finance furor is how it has undermined the public's already slim confidence in the political system.

Some are troubled by the vague notion that politicians are playing fast and loose with the rules.

And others are troubled by the creeping recognition that Washington, preoccupied with the need to identify precisely which phones were used for money solicitations, is truly another planet from the one they inhabit.

The attention has added a taint of embarrassment to fund-raising, and yet politicians have shown they are beyond embarrassment.

Even so, the money continues to flow. All the national political party committees raised more than $34 million in "soft money" during the first six months of this year -- more than twice the amount raised during the comparable period after the 1992 election, according to an analysis by Common Cause, the self-styled citizens' lobby group. Republicans in the Senate are determined to block a campaign finance overhaul this week.

"Both parties have continued their voracious quest for soft money contributions," said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause.

"The money game has continued unabated -- sheer evidence that shame is not going to make these guys stop raising money this way."

David M. Shribman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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