Making a fuss over photo sale, Democrats miss bigger picture

May 17, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Leading Democrats, including Al Gore -- he of the White House dialing-for-dollars in the 1996 campaign -- are downright mortified that the Republicans are using Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism as props to raise big bucks for the GOP cause.

The object of their anger is a fund-raising flier being mailed to party high rollers offering them the title of honorary co-chairman of a June dinner and a fancy matted series of three photos of President Bush, including one showing him talking by phone from Air Force One to Vice President Dick Cheney on Sept. 11 after the terrorist attacks.

For shelling out $150 or more, the flier says, the giver will get the photos as "our way of saying thank you for your personal commitment to President Bush" and helping Republican House and Senate candidates this fall. The flier warns there is a "limited availability" of the photos -- limited, obviously, to those willing to ante up at least $150.

Mr. Gore has called the offer "disgraceful," and Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a wizard in finding ways to part high-rolling Democrats from their money, called it a "grotesque" way to cash in on the war.

But it seems a bit of a stretch to complain about the photo when the whole fund-raising business is obscene -- in both parties.

Neither Mr. Gore nor Mr. McAuliffe should be surprised after a hint in January from chief White House political adviser Karl Rove to the Republican National Committee that the war could pay big dividends to 2002 candidates. Voters, he said, "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America."

Mr. McAuliffe was outraged then, too, labeling Mr. Rove's remarks "despicable" and "an affront to the integrity of the entire U.S. military." House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt called on Mr. Bush to put Mr. Rove in the White House doghouse, but it never happened. Republicans have made a career of casting Democrats as soft on defense ever since Mr. Rove was in diapers.

The Democrats professed to be shocked -- shocked! -- as well that Mr. Bush helped the RNC raise a record $30 million at a dinner on the very night the Sept. 11 photo offer became public.

That achievement should have come as no surprise either. Mr. McAuliffe himself helped President Bill Clinton and Mr. Gore raise $26.5 million for the Democratic National Committee in one night in 2000, when Mr. McAuliffe was only the party's money magician, not national chairman. It will come as no great shock if he manages to top the $30 million mark for the Democrats before he quits the top party job.

The rush to dun supporters for all the unregulated "soft" money that can be grabbed is a phenomenon going on in both parties as they try to beat the Nov. 6 deadline. That's when the new campaign finance law will end such contributions.

If Mr. Gore, Mr. McAuliffe and other Democrats with an eye on 2004 really want something to worry about, it is Mr. Bush's proven ability to raise so much money for his re-election that he may thumb his nose at the spending limits imposed on a candidate who accepts federal campaign funds.

He did just that in 2000, turning down the federal subsidy in the Republican primaries and raising so much on his own that about a dozen GOP challengers were driven out of the race.

In 2000, Bush fat cats, unable to give a candidate unlimited money of their own, raised huge amounts from others in regulated bites of $2,000, making a mockery of the federal limits. Now that the new law has raised the hard money limit an individual can give to $4,000, rejecting the subsidy will be that much easier.

As of now, there is no Republican challenger to the president in sight. In 2000, he accepted the federal subsidy for the general election, but in 2004 he could refuse it and go for the sky as his limit against the Democratic nominee.

No Republican or Democratic presidential nominee has ever turned down that subsidy since it was authorized in 1974. By 2004, however, if Mr. Bush elects to do so and turns on the money spigot full throttle, peddling a Sept. 11 photo as a dinner prize may be the least of the Democrats' worries.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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