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National Perspective | RONALD BROWNSTEIN / WASHINGTON
OUTLOOK

Loopholes, Clinton Tenacity Help to Shed Light on Fund-Raising Scandal

March 17, 1997|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Drawing conclusions about the fund-raising controversies swirling through the Clinton White House is like rating a hurricane before it hits land. News reports, allegations and rumors are all whipping around so fast no one can say for certain where the storm will turn next. Scanning each day's headlines, President Clinton may, like Dorothy Parker, wonder, "What fresh hell is this?" But at least a few points are already clear.

Point one: The loopholes have eaten the law. It may be hard to believe, but the multimillion-dollar money chase at the core of the scandal has its roots in a shortage of bumper stickers.

Back in 1976, in the first presidential campaign run under the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms, state political parties were limited to spending $1,000 on the presidential campaigns. Since the candidates poured almost all their money into television ads and travel, that left nothing for traditional tokens of grass-roots campaigning like lawn signs and bumper stickers. Commentators bewailed their loss; so Congress, in 1979, revised the laws so state parties could make unlimited expenditures on so-called party-building activities.

That was the critical opening wedge in the collapse of the Watergate reforms. In theory, no one can contribute directly to the candidates in a presidential general election. But under the 1979 loophole, the national political parties can collect unlimited sums--"soft money"--for this "party-building"; inevitably the parties have used the money less for lawn signs than for saturation television advertising. Since then, the courts have opened another huge hole by allowing the national parties to spend unlimited sums of money on "issue advocacy" ads that advance a policy position but do not expressly urge support for one candidate.

In practice, these loopholes have spurred the emergence of parallel presidential campaigns: one publicly funded, the second funded through unlimited private contributions channeled through the national political parties ostensibly for party-building or issue advocacy. The idea that these party activities are anything more than an unregulated extension of the presidential campaigns has become increasingly implausible with each passing election; it's hard to see how that fiction can survive Dick Morris' acknowledgment, in his memoirs, that Clinton and his campaign team wrote line by line the Democratic National Committee "issue advocacy" ads that effectively opened his reelection campaign in 1995.

What can be done? Banning the parties from raising soft money wouldn't solve all the problems. But it would severely inhibit the parallel campaign and slow the money chase--at least until the lawyers pry open the holes in any new law.

Point two: For better or worse--maybe for better and worse--Clinton is a street fighter. In the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats routinely nominated genteel losers who would never stoop to conquer. Clinton's proved himself a different kind of character.

After the GOP sweep in 1994, he might have gone down quietly; parties that lose as many midterm seats as the Democrats did that year have almost always lost the White House two years later. But the president counterattacked against the Republican Congress with a ferocity that testified to the most attractive aspect of his political personality: his tenacity and resilience.

Backed into a corner, Clinton picked up any weapon he could reach--including intensive fund-raising for that unprecedented early barrage of television commercials--and ultimately fought the conservative revolution to a standstill. The ads themselves--whose cost demanded the endless money hunt--probably didn't help as much as Morris claimed; but they reflected Clinton's single-minded will to survive, which (along with GOP mistakes) was decisive.

Yet like any street fighter, Clinton didn't seem to much worry whether he was following the Marquess of Queensberry rules. Clinton wasn't the first president to provide special access to donors; he just did it more systematically and unabashedly than anyone else. (Of course, providing special access to donors isn't exactly unknown on Capitol Hill, either.) If he violated no laws, Clinton presided over an environment that dangerously elevated ends over means--with results that are threatening to virtually consume his second term in a swarm of subpoenas. In this, as in so many aspects of his life, Clinton seemed to function without guardrails.

Point three: The world still makes us woozy. Although it has since flared off in countless directions, the spark that initially lit the fund-raising controversy was the revelation that John Huang had solicited improper foreign donations; reports that China may have tried to spirit money into American campaigns have escalated anxieties to an entirely new level. Throughout, the foreign connection has generated the strongest current in the furor.

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