COMMENTARY by Richard S. Dunham December 17, 1999

The Bradley-McCain Push for Campaign-Finance Reform Can Make a Difference
Don't be so quick to write these underdogs off. They're onto something

It was a remarkable bit of political theater: Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Bradley and Republican White House hopeful John McCain teamed up on Dec. 16 for a joint political event at the site of the infamous handshake in 1995, when President Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised to pursue bipartisan campaign finance reform. That Clinton-Gingrich handshake today is remembered for its slippery expediency: Nothing ever came of it. But against the telegenic backdrop of snow-splashed trees in Claremont, N.H., McCain and Bradley vowed to pay more than Clinton-Gingrich lip service to their mutual mission to rid the political system of big-buck, special-interest money.

It would be easy to dismiss the event as clever political showmanship by two anti-establishment underdogs. But Bradley and McCain have tapped into something. Both candidates are leading in some recent polls in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. And they really mean it.

Indeed, campaign-finance reform has emerged as one of the sleeper issues of the 2000 Presidential campaign. For the first time since Watergate, the political money chase has become a prominent issue in both major parties' Presidential primaries. On the Democratic side, Bradley and Vice-President Al Gore both have promised to order their party to forego huge "soft-money" political contributions from corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals -- if the GOP nominee does the same. McCain has made the same pledge.

BUSH'S BET. There's one exception to this anti-soft-money chorus: Republican front-runner George W. Bush. Claiming that McCain is guilty of "unilateral disarmanent" that would only enhance the clout of unions, Bush is already gearing up a sophisticated nationwide soft-money operation. But McCain is making Bush's prolific fund-raising a political target. "I can't understand why Governor Bush would oppose" a no-soft-money promise, the Arizona senator said in Claremont.

Bush is betting that voters won't pay much attention to the issue of money in politics, despite the best efforts of reformist candidates and corporate execs who have tired of being "shaken down" by both parties.

The Texas governor does have most polling on his side. An ABC News poll released Dec. 16 found that just 1% of Americans say campaign-finance reform is the top issue in 2000, far behind education and Social Security, and trailing even obscure topics such as foreign aid. Bush aides also figure that if Gore emerges as the Democratic nominee, the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandals will negate Gore's call to overhaul the system.

TOO MUCH MONEY. Still, something's going on that polls might not be picking up. The political money chase will remain a nagging issue well into 2000 because of Gore's past indiscretions and the sheer enormity of Bush's fund-raising operation. At the Claremont event, McCain rapped the Clinton-Gore campaign for "the debasement of every institution of government" and said that, "when I'm President, there will be a controlling legal authority." That was a slap at Gore's "no controlling legal authority" defense of his 1996 fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Clinton-Gore reelection. Bradley suggested that Bush's $60-plus million war chest proves that "you can raise too much money in politics."

Unlike in many past elections, the major candidates have felt a political imperative to endorse some reform. Bradley's plan is the most radical: public financing of federal elections, a ban on soft money, and free TV air time for candidates during the final six weeks before an election. McCain, co-author of a bipartisan congressional reform package, favors an immediate end to soft money and restrictions on unreported "issue-advocacy" campaigns by various groups. Gore backs many of the same changes.

More interesting is the changing responses of the front-runners. When Bradley unveiled his plan at the National Press Club earlier this year, Gore's campaign chairman, Tony Coelho, blasted the proposal in general and the soft-money pledge in particular. Now, Gore has made the same pledge. "Even though Al Gore came to this position late, I'm glad he's there," Bradley said in Claremont.

LOOPHOLE CITY. Bush also is feeling the pressure. After resisting calls to restrict soft money for months, Bush issued a statement after the McCain-Bradley joint event endorsing an end to soft money from labor unions and corporations, immediate public disclosure of contributions, and a requirement that unions get permission from individual members before using dues money for political causes. "Any plan to reduce the influence of special interest money in politics must be fair -- and no plan should benefit one political party over another," Bush said in his statement. "I support a ban on unlimited 'soft money' contributions from corporations and labor unions -- but the proposal by Senators McCain and Bradley has a huge loophole that benefits Democrats and would hurt the Republican Party and our conservative principles."

Loopholes? Look no farther than Bush's new proposal. It would allow wealthy individuals to continue writing million-dollar checks to the party of their choice. Organized labor would be muzzled, but not rich activists from the Right and Left.

McCain promises to make fund-raising reform "a central theme" of his campaign. But he knows it's not a silver bullet. "I don't know how it's going to play," he concedes. Bradley, too, knows that voters won't embrace him simply because of his reform plan. And, he concedes, the issue won't get much of a boost from the media. "There's great skepticism on the part of the press," he says.

Skeptics think the current wave of reform talk will vanish like the Clinton-Gingrich mirage. But there's a big difference this time around. Even if the issue recedes eventually in the heat of the campaign, it has helped shape public perceptions of the major candidates. Already, McCain and Bradley have used it to bolster their images as outsiders and candidates of character. Gore has tried to grasp the issue to erase voters' memories of the Buddhist temple episode of '96. And Bush believes that, at a minimum, it's necessary to pay lip service to reform.

None of this means Congress will find it any easier to adopt sweeping campaign-finance reform in the future. But if Bradley or McCain somehow manages to win the nomination of their respective parties and win the White House, all bets against campaign-finance reform will be off. And that would be something to see.

Dunham, White House correspondent for Business Week, was at the Claremont event in New Hampshire on Dec. 16

EDITED BY DOUGLAS HARBRECHT _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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