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The Post's David S. Broder

Free Media
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Buy Broder's new book, "Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns & the Power of Money"
David S. Broder columns
Post coverage: Campaign 2000
Live: "Free Media"
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Monday, May 15, 2000; 11 a.m. EDT

Campaign 2000's front-loaded primary season meant voters were swept up in a wave of hype for a couple of months at the beginning of this year, and are now idling until the conventions and the debates. Yet consultants and campaigns are devoting enormous budgets to targeting voters, and interest groups are digging deep into bank accounts to focus on specific candidates and issues.

David S. Broder
Broder (The Post)

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and reporter David S. Broder has written a new book, "Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns & the Power of Money," examining the influence of the initiative process and the industry that fuels it with seemingly unlimited funds. Broder joined "Free Media" on Wednesday, April 26 to talk about his book and Campaign 2000. The transcript follows:

Free Media: Good morning, David, and welcome. Last week was a wild one in politics, between the polls showing Texas Gov. George W. Bush leading Vice President Gore substantially and the fireworks from Mayor Giuliani in New York. Care to make a forecast in either scenario? Will Gore rebound? Will Giuliani drop out?

David Broder: I don't know what Mayor Giuliani will do. As a prostate cancer survivor (treated in 1992), I am sure that would not knock him out. The personal stuff is something only he and his family can sort out. But Hillary is not necessarily helped if they have a substitute opponent with fewer negatives that Giuliani will carry.

As for Gore, I would never count him out. Remember that six months before New Hampshire, he was trailing Bradley by a wider margin than his current deficit to Bush in the polls. Bush is a better general election candidate than a Republican primary contender, but the events that will determine this election are still ahead of us. I doubt that the Buddhist temple or Bob Jones will decide this race.

Arlington, Va.: As a Democrat, I have to ask what has happened to Al Gore? There's been no sign of him for weeks while Shrub eats up the airwaves. Does he have the Dukakis mindset that it's good enough to win primaries and does he figure he has another chance at 52? At least Clinton made it safe to be a Democrat when it comes to winning the White House but now they seem to be complacent and clueless.

David Broder: As I just said, it would be a big mistake to count Gore out. The election is still almost six months away, and most voters have yet to spend 15 seconds thinking about the candidate they will support in November. Gore has plenty of time to figure out and execute a strategy against Bush.

Gaithersburg, Md.: I've noticed that Al Gore's personality seems a bit weird, quirky and obtuse. Bill Bradley even said that people "can't stand" him.

Do you think that his personality alone, regardless of this or that health care proposal, will influence the election in favor of Bush? especially given the most recent poll from the L.A. Times?

David Broder: I don't know that I would call Gore weird. But he can and often does come across as stiff, while Bush projects a natural friendliness. Personality will be important, because people think about the president as someone they will have to spend a lot of time with over a four-year term. But they're still hiring someone to do a job, and the definition of the job that the candidate gives – i.e. his issue positions – will be at least as important as his personality.

Bethesda, Md.: Who would be a good choice for Gore's running mate?

David Broder: I am not allowed to answer this or any other questions on the vice presidential selection – for a simple reason. The last time I guessed right, possibly the only time, the name was Spiro Agnew. And no one wants to take that chance again.

Madison, Wis.: If (say) Fighting Bob LaFollette came back, I assume you think he'd be disappointed in the way referenda and initiatives have turned out, instead of thinking that their opponents just have developed some new and sophisticated arguments (like yours) in order to keep decision making out of the hands of the people. If I'm right, why do you think so?

David Broder: LaFollette and the other Progressives saw the initiative process as a way that average citizens could break the grip the special interests exerted on the legislatures of their day. Occasionally the initiative process is still used that way. But far more often, it is a money-driven process in which interest groups and millionaires with private political agendas pay to collect the signatures, hire the lawyers and conduct the campaigns that write laws or rewrite state constitutions to their personal specifications. The theory of the initiative process was a noble one; its practice these days leaves a lot to be desired, in my view.

Baltimore, Md.: Dear David:

In your conversations with voters as you do your reporting, do you sense the level of frustration I often feel about politicians who pander to every single partisan issue that appears on the political radar screen. The recent Elian Gonzalez case is a prime example. While the use of force to "rescue" the child may have been a little harsh, I don't think there was any alternative. And now, in its aftermath, many elected officials, both Democrat and Republican, are calling for hearings and a scrutinization of what happened that will drag on for months, maybe longer, and in the end they will arrive at nothing particularly startling. Meantime, the public has to listen to their posturing while more substantive national issues and problems go unattended. What can we as voters do to stop this silliness and get our elected officials to govern? Thanks.
Still enjoy the column.


David Broder: Thanks for your good question. The public is very frustrated with the partisanship of Washington and with the gridlock that prevents action on the concerns voters have – with schools, health care, etc. We have to acknowledge that the strength of the two parties is so closely balanced at this moment of history – whether in polls or in the makeup of Congress – that it is likely every issue will be looked at as giving an advantage to one side or the other. With the end of the Cold War, there are few international issues which impel the parties to look beyond partisanship. But the level of animosity between the parties is far higher than it should be. Leaders of the right sort could help cool that distemper; but it would also help if we as voters decided to give a clear advantage – and a decisive majority in Congress plus control of the White House – to one party or the other.

Arlington, Va.: David, at least tell us your rationale for thinking Nixon would select Spiro Agnew?

David Broder: Agnew was viewed as a moderate governor of Maryland, who had supported Nelson Rockefeller for the 1968 nomination. It was not known at the time that he was also a crook.

Free Media: With the overwhelming power of money in the political process, do you think it's possible and/or realistic for a candidate to come along and tout actual reform? Conventional wisdom says campaign finance reform, for example, has no chance of succeeding because its supporters would be biting the hands that feed them. [Sen.] Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) had a tough time winning reelection after advocating an overhaul. Are the candidates simply too dependent on money from the party and too entrenched in the system to change it?

David Broder: I think that something called campaign finance reform is likely to pass in the not too distant future. After all, majorities in both the House and Senate have supported the McCain-Feingold bill. It is also likely that big business will apply increasing pressure to Sens. Lott and McConnell to stop the incessant demand for six-figure soft money contributions. More and more companies are starting to say no to this use of stockholder funds.

But I doubt that McCain-Feingold or any other regulatory approach can be very effective for very long in stemming the flow of private funds into political campaigns.

One effective step would be to reduce the cost of campaigns by providing free mailings and free or low-cost broadcast time to candidates.

Assuming, however, that the cost of political communication remains high, there are only two "clean" sources I can identify. One is taxpayer financing, as is being attempted now is a handful of states for their state elections.

The other approach would be to empower political parties to create funds to finance challenger candidates, and make it easier for them to reach the level of visibility where the incumbents, who almost always can raise as much money as they think they need, would face the necessity of defending their performance in office.

Even if the contributions to the parties' challenger campaign fund came from a variety of interest groups, the recipient candidates would be less dependent on any one of those groups than is the case today. And we would have more competitive elections, especially for the House of Representatives, where far too many incumbents go effectively unchallenged.

Washington, D.C.: Is it possible to restructure agencies like the FEC to make them more favorable to a level playing field on the campaign front, or do all parties involved have too much at stake in keeping it toothless?

David Broder: It is possible but not likely that the FEC will be restructured. Congress is hostile to giving any real power to the agency that monitors congressional elections.

New York, N.Y.: Would a convergence of electronic democracy – i.e., via the Internet – and ballot initiatives be better or worse for our democracy?

David Broder: Simple majority rule, whether by the Internet or by the present system of ballot initiatives, has some serious inherent risks – of which the Founders were well aware. It becomes easy for the sentiment of the moment to be translated into permanent law, with the real danger that individual freedom or the vital interests of groups which are less than a majority may be placed in jeopardy. We have seen the initiative system used often in recent years to impose policies over the objections of a large part of the community. Note, for example, the 51 to 49 percent vote in Oregon to authorize physician-assisted suicide.

Arlington, Va.: With all the money flowing into politics and with lawsuit against lawsuit replacing civility between the major parties, do you honestly feel that there is a way out of this morass?

David Broder: It will not be easy to restore a sense of civility to Washington or to politics in general. But leadership of the right sort, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, can help. When the Speaker of the House and the Minority Leader are not speaking to each other, there is no incentive for members to behave responsibly. And when the bonds of personal trust between the White House and congressional leaders are broken, it certainly does not help. here have been faults on all sides, but I thought that President Clinton's example was devastating.

Rockville, Md.: Did this weekend's Million Mom March do anything to change the dynamics of gun control as a campaign issue? Is Bush going to have to give a lot more on this issue, or is he basically safe with fence-sitters?

Free Media: Also, how do you think the NRA video talking about a Bush White House will affect his bid in the long run? Will we see that clip in ads?

David Broder: The Million Mom March and other developments all point up the fact that gun control now is a two-sided issue. In the past, politicians have felt that the only risk was getting on the wrong side of the N.R.A. But now it is clear that in urban and suburban areas, there is risk in opposing sensible gun safety measures. It will be an issue in the presidential campaign, and my guess is that when the reapportionment of House seats takes place next year, the new Congress will be more supportive of those measures, because the suburbs will have more influence.

Vienna, Va.: Do you think the Republicans will look more kindly on McCain the next time around? It seems to me that he had a better chance of winning than Bush because the hard core Republicans will vote the ticket no matter who the candidate is and McCain appealed to many in between. I for one wanted to vote for him and now don't know who to vote for.

David Broder: If Bush loses in November, I would expect to see McCain try for the nomination in 2004. But it's impossible to speculate at this point about the rest of the field, or to gauge whether McCain would have more support from other Republican leaders.

D.C.: President Ford stated on TV that sticking with the NRA and big tax cuts was a losing position. Obviously the Republican Party does not agree. Does it really think the American public is so dense as to believe that Republicans really care about gun control?

David Broder: President Ford is wonderfully candid and I think he is right about both gun laws and tax cuts. The Republican Party position is now largely defined by Gov. Bush and he clearly does not agree. There will be other issues in the presidential campaign, but on these subjects, I think Ford is more likely correct than Bush.

D.C.: President Ford stated on TV that sticking with the NRA and big tax cuts was a losing position. Obviously the Republican Party does not agree. Does it really think the American public is so dense as to believe that Republicans really care about gun control?

David Broder: President Ford is wonderfully candid and I think he is right about both gun laws and tax cuts. The Republican Party position is now largely defined by Governor Bush and he clearly does not agree. There will be other issues in the presidential campaign, but on these subjects, I think Ford is more likely correct than Bush.

Amherst, Mass.: Good morning, David!

I tire of the horse race approach to presidential campaign reporting. And there are other horses running! Do you think campaign fatigue will drive mainstream media to report on Ralph Nader's campaign, Pat Buchanan's jeremiad – helping them achieve a rightly deserved spot in the debates?

David Broder: I am sure that both Buchanan and Nader will get substantial coverage this fall. Whether they get into the debates is another question, and I can't make a guess on that.

Virginia Beach, Va.: Mr. Broder, I respect your work immensely. As a staunch supporter of Sen. John McCain's former bid for the Republican nomination, I am deflated by Gov. Bush's bandwagon use of the "campaign finance reform" platform. Turned off completely by Vice President Gore, I feel as if the November election will yield no good choice. Many Americans must feel similarly. How can we choose a candidate? Is it better to vote as a democracy-privileged American or to withhold out of conscience, because both candidates are regrettable (in my opinion)?

David Broder: I hope you decide to vote in the election, rather than cast a silent protest by staying home. You likely will have at least four options for president – Bush, Gore, Buchanan and Nader. The major party candidates are both people with substantial government experience and strong backing from their fellow-elected officials. They also have clear and significant policy differences. That is what an election is supposed to provide, and I hope you will exercise your right as a citizen to make a choice.

Nashua, N.H.: David,

Thank you for your columns. could you please compare 2000 to 1992 – what impact would a third party presence made in the debates? Nader says he is serious; Buchanan is obviously in the race, too, if only for the matching funds. Could they topple Gore or Bush?

David Broder: I doubt that either Buchanan or Nader can "topple" the major party nominees, but in a close election, which I expect, either one or both could draw enough votes to switch states with large blocks of electoral votes from Bush to Gore or vice versa. In the end, I expect the man who receives most popular votes will still be the president.

San Francisco, Calif.: Good morning,
Do we voters have any reason to be optimistic about campaign reform with either Bush or Gore in the White House? And, what suggestions have been offered for reform that you think might have the most promise of actually working? Thanks.

David Broder: I offered a brief outline of my views on the campaign finance scene a half hour ago. I hope you can retrieve that reply.

Laurel, Md.: Glad to hear you favor free air time for candidates to talk about issues. The role of broadcast media seems to be a big part of Gore's campaign reform plan, but our last couple of presidents have been unwilling to do more than pay lip service to this issue. What do you think of Gore's sincerity? Will a Bush administration kill all hopes for meaningful campaign reform?

David Broder: The problem on getting free air time resides more on Capitol Hill than in the White House. Congressional candidates fear their local broadcasters will relegate their ads to "dead hours" if they vote for free time legislation. Advertisers pay premium rates for "peak hours" but most campaigns want to save money by not paying those premium rates; so they count on the goodwill of the station owners and managers to give them good placement. As with other aspects of campaign finance, the chances of success depend on members' willingness to look beyond their personal interests.

Plymouth, Minn.: Mr. Broder:

We saw what letting a viable third party candidate into the debates did here in Minnesota – we got the candidate we wanted, not a compromise. Is there any chance that Ralph Nader or some of the other third party candidates can get on that stage with Gore and Bush in October?

David Broder: I think there is a chance. Personally, I favor holding a prime time debate among all minor party candidates with enough ballot access to have a theoretical chance of being elected – and holding it early enough so they can get some real exposure. Then I would include in the major-party candidates' debate any other candidate who was receiving public financing or who support in the polls met a rather low threshold.

Princeton, N.J.: Do you perceive any hope for the creation of an independent commission by the new president, whoever that may be, to study all facets of our campaign finance system?

David Broder: I think it is possible a new president might create a commission on campaign finance reform. What would really help is a prior congressional agreement to a "fast-track" vote on its recommendations, to get rid of the filibuster problem.

Free Media: That was our last question today for David Broder. Thanks so much to David, and to everyone who joined us.

Tune in again today at 1 p.m. EDT for "Media Backtalk" with Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. Got a beef with political coverage? Liked or didn't like what you saw this weekend with the Million Mom March? Ask Howard.

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