Reform could be a boon for Bush

April 01, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- A day before President Bush signed the campaign finance reform bill in the solitude of his office, figuratively holding his nose as he did so, a coalition of state reform groups asked him to promise them something.

U.S. PIRG, the lobby for state public interest research organizations, politely called on him to pledge "to abide by the presidential spending limits in his re-election campaign," although the new law permits him to ignore them and raise all the money he can get his hands on, as he did in the 2000 election.

On the day of the bill signing, the president indirectly gave his answer, appropriately enough as he hit the money trail in South Carolina and Georgia, raising $3 million for fellow Republicans seeking Senate seats this fall.

Asked by reporters whether there wasn't a contradiction in his going out on such a mission when the ink was barely dry on his signature on the bill, Mr. Bush replied: "I'm not going to lay down my arms. I'm going to participate in the rules of the system."

The first part of the answer was a reference to the fact that the new law's ban on unregulated "soft money" contributions to the national parties does not go into effect until after November's elections. His comment was a variation of the view expressed by fund-raisers for both parties that they don't believe in "unilateral disarmament" in the money wars.

The second part of Mr. Bush's response, that he is "going to participate in the rules of the system," no doubt was meant to apply only to this year's election cycle, not his expected 2004 re-election campaign. Unless he has had a severe attack of fair play not shown in 2000, he can be counted on again in 2004 not to "participate in the rules of the system."

Those rules call for presidential candidates to agree to a federally established spending limit, in return for which they become eligible for a generous federal subsidy -- $67 million in 2000, more in 2004. While it's not illegal to turn down the subsidy and raise and spend unlimited amounts, it's hardly "playing by the rules" to do so.

Mr. Bush's record-setting fund-raisers in 2000 brought in a whopping $113 million for the primaries, overwhelming the other GOP candidates. In the general election against Al Gore, however, he did accept the federal subsidy.

Adam Lioz, a U.S. PIRG spokesman, says Mr. Bush could well become the first presidential candidate to turn down the federal money for the 2004 general election, too.

With the new law now doubling the $1,000 per contributor under the old law, Mr. Lioz said, "President Bush just signed himself a $300 million check," assuming that as an incumbent he would be able to more than double his take in 2004. The reformers, Mr. Lioz warned, "don't realize that this could be the end of the presidential system of voluntary spending limits and public financing" because "other candidates will surely follow" Mr. Bush's lead.

That observation is not mere scare talk to those who want to retain the system that limits spending by granting the federal campaign subsidy. Raising the individual contributor limit to $2,000 will sorely tempt other candidates, very likely only Democrats in 2004, to opt out.

Jan Baran, the Republican Party's prime expert on campaign finance, notes that Mr. Gore in 2000 had a base of 22,000 contributors, which at $1,000 a pop would have yielded him $22 million. With $2,000 the limit in 2004, he could raise $44 million by squeezing only his old contributors. And if one Democrat decided to pass up the federal subsidy, the other contenders might feel forced to do the same or suffer the same fate of all the Republicans who ran against Mr. Bush's unfettered treasury in 2000.

In light of all this, you have to wonder why the president chose to ink the new bill in what Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle called a "stealth signing." As a longtime foe of public financing of elections, you might think he would have been delighted to celebrate legislation that could prove to be its undoing.

Mr. Lioz says Mr. Bush's coolness and seclusion in signing the bill probably reflected his deference to his anti-reform Republican constituency. "He's probably smiling on the inside," he says.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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