A Ludicrous Pledge, Fortunately Ignored

The most interesting and inadvertently revealing statement that Vice President Gore made in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention was not “I stand here tonight as my own man.” (Subtext: I’m not like Bill Clinton.) Nor was it “I will never let you down.” (Subtext: I won’t behave like Bill Clinton.) Nor, for that matter, was it The Smooch. (Subtext: “I don’t need to behave like Bill Clinton.”) My choice is this promise:

“If you entrust me with the presidency, I will put our democracy back in your hands, and get all the special-interest money—all of it—out of our democracy by enacting campaign finance reform. I feel so strongly about this, I promise you that campaign finance reform will be the very first bill that Joe Lieberman and I send to the United States Congress.”

This was interesting for two reasons. First, it stood out as easily the most preposterous remark in a generally down-to-earth speech. Second, no one noticed.

The irony was delectable. Gore and his party have been aggressive fundraisers. The Democrats’ ritual denunciations of “soft money” (unregulated donations made directly to the parties) have not prevented them from raising plenty of it. As of late June, according to Common Cause, the Democrats had raised $119 million in soft money—almost matching the Republicans’ $137 million. Both parties were on track to nearly double their record soft money takes in the 1995-96 election cycle.

The Gore convention itself was a fundraising event. Democrats rolled out the red carpet for Chairman’s Circle fat cats who gave $500,000 or more. After his populist speech, Gore decamped to a gold-plated event that reportedly raised more than $5 million. And why not? There was no controlling legal authority.

“He talked populist but buys into corporate power,” said Ralph Nader, the consumer activist and Green Party presidential candidate, on Monday. “Give back the money, Mr. Gore.” Not unreasonably, the Democrats reply that they can’t change the system if they don’t win. Unilaterally renouncing soft money from Big Business or Big Labor or Big Law might make Gore a purer populist, but it might also hand the election to George W. Bush and his bags of money.

Grant them the point. Gore’s statement was not necessarily hypocritical. Rather, it was nuts.

American politics have been awash with private money since the beginning. Gil Troy, a historian at McGill University in Montreal, has pointed out that Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828 may have cost as much as $1 million (a fortune back then). Theodore Roosevelt bashed corporations while collecting an estimated $2.2 million from them. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s many gimmicks included autographing leather-bound volumes commemorating Democratic conventions and selling the books for $100 each.

Reformers note, correctly, that the amounts have risen dizzyingly in recent years. In real dollars, political spending more than quadrupled from 1952 to 1996. The current cycle appears likely to break all the records, handily.

Shouldn’t something be done to arrest the avalanche of lucre? Well, something already has been done. Today’s system of elaborate campaign finance laws was created in 1974. The rapid increase in political spending began after that year, in 1976.

With the one important exception of disclosure, the 1970s system failed comprehensively. And it failed because it was built on a false premise, namely that sufficiently elaborate legalistic strictures can chase private money from the public square. As with most quixotic efforts, many of the results have been perverse.

Stringent limits on contributions to candidates have driven the big money deeper into the shadows, and thus further from political accountability, while forcing politicians to beg full-time for small donations. The system’s Levitical rules baffle even lawyers, while engendering endless legalistic pseudo-scandals. (Did Gore know he was raising some “hard money”—donations intended for the candidates and not the party—when he made fundraising calls from the White House in 1996? Or did he believe he was raising only soft money?) Instead of bringing little people into the process, the ’70s regime favors officeholders with fundraising machines (California Gov. Gray Davis, for example), plutocrats who finance their own campaigns (Steve Forbes, Ross Perot), and loonies who need little money (fill in the blank).

In real life, eliminating special interest money is not possible; nor, in a free society, is it desirable. It cannot happen. What might happen, in the near term, is something like the McCain-Feingold reform bill, whose centerpiece is a ban on soft money. Such a ban might help a bit, or it might hurt a bit (weakening the parties by diminishing their ability to raise money). But it would not change anything fundamentally, since most of the money would find new and possibly weirder outlets.

If we want to place new limits on soft money, the smart way is by simultaneously easing the old limits on hard money—thus giving the money somewhere legal, visible and accountable to go. Oddly, most of the reform groups hate this idea. They are for tighter limits everywhere and always, on the theory that money is evil and that stricter laws will get rid of it. In other words (and in Gore’s words), they insist on getting “all the special-interest money—all of it—out of our democracy. . . .” That, of course, is the approach that got us into this mess.

So three things can be said about Gore’s pledge. First, it is as silly as promising to fly every American to the moon.

Second, it is counterproductive. The harder you try to get all the special interest money out of our democracy, the worse things become. Every time you try to plug some new “loophole,” the laws become more tangled and self-contradictory while the money dances further out of reach. Reform can be successful only to the extent that it focuses on realistic goals such as accountability and disclosure.

Third, Al Gore either knows his promise is silly and counterproductive, in which case he is cynical, or he does not know it, in which case he is foolish.

I leave it to you to decide which interpretation fits best. Neither option is particularly attractive. Still, in the Reaganesque tradition of looking for a pony in every roomful of manure, I want to propose that there is good news hidden here. The good news is that no one took Gore seriously.

I did a search of the Lexis-Nexis database expecting to find at least a sprinkling of major newspaper editorials chiding Gore for his preposterous promise. I found nothing. You might have thought that Republicans or other Gorephobes would harp on yet another example of the vice president’s alleged tendency to exaggerate. But silence reigned.

Perhaps nobody heard Gore promise to eliminate every dime of special interest money from politics, or nobody cared about eliminating special interest money, or nobody thought he was being ridiculous. My guess, though, is that these days everyone understands that this sort of reformist rhetoric is mere boilerplate, political wallpaper—a pious, posterior-covering gesture of no real meaning.

If so, then that would be a step toward realism. And realism—an attitude that seeks to identify and channel private money instead of eliminating it—is the precondition for making the system better. Considering all the damage that has been done since the ’70s by puritanical promises to “get all the special-interest money—all of it—out of our democracy,” any evidence of dawning realism must count as progress.