Clintons again go for soft money

November 15, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It is becoming increasingly clear that Hillary Rodham Clinton is getting a lot of help from high places in her campaign to become a senator from New York. It is also becoming clear that she needs whatever help she can get.

The decision by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to finance TV commercials promoting her candidacy is obviously indefensible on several counts.

Mrs. Clinton is being given the kind of special treatment that other Democrats running for the Senate have every reason to resent. Party officials explain that this is a legitimate use of the committees resources because the Senate seat at stake, that of the retiring Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, has a high priority next year. But would the party have run ads this early for Rep. Nita Lowey, the Democrat who probably would have been the partys Senate nominee if the first lady had not decided she was a New Yorker after all?

Fat cat contributions

Beyond that, there is a question of appearance. The commercials are being bought with the kind of soft money -- meaning unregulated contributions from fat cats -- that the Clinton White House and the Democratic Party now officially deplore. Mr. Clintons senior adviser, Harold M. Ickes, is quoted as telling the New York Times that the financing is perfectly legal.

Thats true. Its just as legal as it was when Mr. Ickes and Dick Morris ordered the same kind of spending in behalf of President Clinton in the year before the 1996 re-election campaign.

It might seem, however, that this precedent would not be an ideal example to be cited in behalf of someone as dedicated to clean government as Mrs. Clinton.

The use of soft money also seems politically counter-productive to the extent it reminds voters about the wretched excesses in the financing of Mr. Clintons last campaign.

If New Yorkers are weary of dealing with all the controversies of the Clinton years -- that is, suffering from what has become known as Clinton fatigue -- this is an initiative that could make that ennui even stronger.

Mrs. Clintons likely Republican opponent, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, seized the opening. The use of soft money has been made into an art form by Clinton campaigns, he said. And very often, you know, the finger is pointed at Republicans, but theres nothing like what was done in the last Clinton presidential campaign -- money from China, money from elsewhere, money raised on telephones in the White House.

Mr. Giulianis sense of outrage did not extend to any commitment on his part to refuse soft money from adjuncts of the Republican National Committee, although so far he has financed his advertising out of his own campaign treasury.

And his defense of his party on soft money rings a little hollow when it is the Republicans in the Senate who are blocking legislation to outlaw it. But even if Mr. Giuliani may not be totally invulnerable to criticism, it is plain that he holds the political advantage at this early stage of what promises to be an intense struggle over the next 12 months.

Polls show the mayor leading Mrs. Clinton in part because the first lady is running behind among women voters and, most significantly, among Jewish voters.

The problem for the first lady with Jewish voters stems from her clumsy handling of issues involving Israel and the Palestinians, beginning with her statement that she favored the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

She made the comment, going well beyond the declared policy of her husbands administration, more than a year ago and hasnt repeated it. But she can rely on the Giuliani campaign to remind anyone who might have forgotten.

At another point she wrote a letter supporting the status of Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel. That one may have pleased some Jewish voters, but many Jewish New Yorkers are quick to detect -- and react against -- pandering. So Hillary Clinton is getting special help -- and clearly needs it.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau. Mr. Germonds latest book is Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics, (Random House).

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