The Magazine


Apr 7, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 29 • By CARL M. CANNON
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President Clinton and the Democrats have responded to the burgeoning scandal surrounding their fund-raising methods with a symphony of defenses that sound plausible. At least at first.

We didn't invent the system of soft money, they say. The Republicans did. And in any case, nothing has happened in the Clinton White House that didn't happen during other presidencies. And anyway, there's nothing inherently wrong with mingling with your supporters and contributors. After all, there were no quid pro quos. Okay, maybe the DNC shouldn't have escorted Chinese arms dealers into the Oval Office, but new procedures have been implemented to prevent that from happening in the future. Not to worry, because no money was solicited on White House grounds, unless it was in the residential part of the White House. Finally, we'll be more careful. But after the devastating 1994 defeats, our party faced extinction in the face of a GOP fund-raising juggernaut; we had to act for the sake of the nation. Really, we're proud of what we did because it was necessary to save Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.

These excuses have elements of the scene in The Blues Brothers when John Belushi ticks off to Carrie Fisher the reasons why he never showed up at his own wedding ("My car had a flat tire. . . . My car wouldn't start. . . . I was running late. . . . IT'S NOT MY FAULT!"). And like Belushi's character, "Joliet Jake" Blues, the president and the Democrats are not really telling the truth.

First, let's examine the fund-raising figures Clinton keeps talking about. He claims that from 1995 through 1996, the three major Republican party committees raised $ 549 million, while the Democratic committees raised $ 332 million. "We still fell over $ 200 million short of the money raised by the committees of the Republican party," Clinton said at a press conference on March 7. "But we are proud of the fact that . . . we worked hard to raise money so that we could get our message out there and we would not be buried -- literally buried -- by the amount of money that the other side had at their disposal."

This is a novel defense. It amounts to a claim that a sitting president can't get any ink or airtime unless he underwrites attack ads. Clinton first used it in 1995 when blasting Rush Limbaugh and other talkradio types and was justly ridiculed for it.

The fund-raising numbers he cites are accurate -- they come from the Federal Election Commission -- but they are also misleading. For starters, they don't include the money spent by organized labor to defeat Bob Dole, marginalize Newt Gingrich, and help Democratic candidates coast to coast. AFL- CIO president John Sweeney pledged $ 35 million in ads for this purpose -- a promise that apparently was kept. And that $ 35 million doesn't include the thousands of phone banks, get-out-the-vote organizers, and professional field operatives that organized labor paid for in 1996. Leo Troy, a professor at Rutgers University, estimates that this help would have cost 10 times as much as the AFL-CIO attack ads if the Democrats had had to pay for it.

More significant, the president's numbers include "hard money" -- campaign contributions of $ 1,000 or less from individuals and $ 5,000 or less from political action committees. The money now at issue is not hard money -- nobody thinks there are any hijinks involved with hard money -- but the huge " soft-money" donations to the national parties from fat cats and big business that have made a mockery of campaign-finance law.

A bit of historical context is needed here. One of the more disturbing images from the 1972 campaign was a briefcase stuffed with $ 1.8 million in cash given to the Committee to Re-Elect the President. The donor, Chicago financier W. Clement Stone, was a close friend of Richard Nixon's. Such contributions were then legal, but the public recoiled from the notion that one rich person could exert that kind of influence on a national election. The Democrats set out to ensure it would never happen again. In 1974, Congress outlawed corporate giving, placed strict limits on individual contributions, and said even the political parties couldn't accept more than $ 20,000 per person.

A funny thing happened as the post-Watergate reforms took effect: The Party of Big Business turned out to have far more small donors than the Party of the People. This galled the Democrats, and they searched for ways to even things out. They found a big one -- something now known as "in-kind" contributions -- when they turned to organized labor for help. In the 1980 campaign, labor announced it was going to spend some $ 4 million to work to reelect Jimmy Carter.