GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When John Kerry came to the Packers' home town for a campaign appearance last week, no one was happier to see him than the owners of the local television stations. Kerry has been very good to them, and so has President Bush, as both sides advertise heavily here, seeking an edge in the struggle for this battleground state.
Spending by the two sides put Green Bay in 12th place among all media markets in the country. Wisconsin is also one of the three states where the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched its now-famous campaign to discredit Kerry's Vietnam service record. And it is a major target for ads sponsored by the Media Fund, America Coming Together and other independent organizations out to defeat Bush.
With total reported political contributions for this cycle already past the $1 billion mark -- and the heaviest ad buys still to come -- the character of the perpetual debate about campaign financing has begun to shift. Instead of focusing on who is giving how much, the argument now seems to be about who has the right to join in the spending spree.
Bush's stated position is that the non-party groups such as the Swift Boaters and America Coming Together ought to butt out of the campaign debate and let the two parties and their nominees decide what messages the voters hear. He has challenged Kerry to renounce all such ads -- and the Democrat has declined the invitation.
There is an element of self-interest in Bush's position. His campaign and the Republican Party have substantially outraised Kerry and the Democrats in "hard money" contributions, those whose size is controlled by law. The latest scorecard reads GOP, $485 million; Democrats, $379 million. But independent groups supporting Kerry got a much earlier start and have collected much more "soft money," which is unlimited, than those on Bush's side. The pro-Kerry groups have $145 million; the pro-Bush groups, $9 million.
With record sums available to both sides -- either through their official committees or through the independent groups supporting them -- the real issue is not one of finance but of accountability.
What the candidates and the political parties put on the air become their responsibility. Cheap shots and blatant distortions can be -- and have been -- laid right at their doorstep. But when independent groups launch their broadsides at the opposition candidate, the intended beneficiary can -- and often does -- wash his hands of the whole affair.
That is what Bush has done with the Swift Boaters; rather than denounce their allegations that Kerry lied about his war wounds and decorations, he has righteously come down against all such non-official ads. The White House announced Thursday that Bush would join Sen. John McCain in a lawsuit "to shut down all the ads and activity" by these groups.
Implicit in Bush's stance is the assumption that the election-period dialogue is the exclusive property of the parties and their candidates. But that is not -- and never has been -- the law, and it hardly fits the realities of America's pluralistic society.
The institutions and individuals with a stake in the presidential election are far more numerous than two parties and two candidates. All sorts of other groups -- from left and right, from environmentalists to anti-abortionists -- have much riding on the outcome. By what logic are they to be prohibited from running their ads?
Kerry had no difficulty proving that some of the people involved in the independent pro-Bush groups were veteran Republicans with close ties to the Bush family or campaign. The same sort of incestuous relationship is even more obvious among the pro-Kerry independents, whose leaders include Kerry's own former campaign manager and two former Clinton White House political directors.
Almost simultaneously with Bush's denunciation of these groups came word that new organizations aimed at defeating Kerry had been formed by people who served as chiefs of staff to the president's father and fellow members of the Reagan-Bush administration. Those groups announced financial plans that will soon put them in the same league as the pro-Kerry independents.
The reality is that, in a nation with our Constitution's guarantee of free speech and a government whose decisions affect every aspect of life, the flow of money from the private sector into the political world will be almost impossible to control.
What can be disciplined is the tendency of these ads to exaggerate, distort or flat-out lie. And the candidates who benefit from the ads are the ones who have the first responsibility -- along with the media -- to police them. The candidates ought to be judged by their willingness to tell their supporters when they have crossed the line.