The State of Politics
With David S. Broder
Washington Post Columnist/Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2001; Noon EST
As President Bush continues his tax-cut road show and begins to delve into foreign affairs, the Senate and the Sunday talk shows are once again dominated by talk of campaign finance reform. But while Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) contend with new competition in the form of a bill sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), the elephant in the room that no one is talking about is the price of campaign advertising on TV. According to a report by the Alliance for Better Campaigns, at least $771 million paid for 1.2 million political ads broadcast in the top 75 media markets. After all the talk about soft money, is TV the problem?
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David S. Broder has written extensively about primaries, elections, special interests and the business of politics. His books include "Democracy Derailed: The Initiative Movement & the Power of Money," "Behind the Front Page: A Candid Look at How the News Is Made" and "The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point." He was online to talk about what's happening in Washington from Capitol Hill to the Cabinet on Thursday, March 22.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Virginia Beach, Va.: In light of the increased individualization apparent in contemporary American politics, as is evidenced by the decreased party influences in congressional campaigns, and the strong division in public opinion, evidenced by the results of the past presidential and congressional elections, what hope is there for a sense of national unity and direction for America's future?
Are we doomed to an increasing lack of common direction and purpose? Has Madison's belief that the interactions of multiple factions are the best hope to avoid abuse of power in our nation, possibly progressed to the point that we are experiencing too much division?
David S. Broder: That is a great question, worthy of a book, not a brief Internet response. My shorthand answer is that the two political parties remain the best device for integrating individual political ambitions and opinions, and also for reaching accommodation, where that is possible. We are having an important test of that in the 50-50 Senate and the narrowly divided House, and I think the people who were on the ballot last year, including the president, understand that the public is fed up with partisanship and gridlock. I have some hopes for a more productive politics this year and next.
Hyattsville, Md.: I don't understand why ANY member of Congress wants a system where they are required to spend a good portion of their working day begging for money. It would seem to me that the members would want to change things even more than the public does. What's your read on this?
David S. Broder: Many members of Congress are weary of the money chase and would welcome getting off that merry-go-round. But campaigns are expensive, and they realize that if they can't raise the funds needed to communicate with their constituents, they cannot compete. That's why I favor reducing the cost of TV time for candidates and parties and why, eventually, I'd like to see public financing of congressional campaigns.
Greenbelt, Md.: Hello Mr. Broder,
Recently, President Bush has disregarded the advice of his cabinet/subcabinet members regarding important domestic and foreign affairs issues. The latest example was his overruling EPA Administrator Whitman regarding regulation of CO2 emissions and their contribution to the "greenhouse effect." Does all the power and decision making in the Bush administration rest in the White House? How does this differ with past administrations? To what extent do you really feel President Bush is engaged and knowledgeable about these important issues, or is he just there to sign-off on recommendations from his top advisors with little input or discussion of his own?
David S. Broder: In most recent administrations, the White House staff has exercised more policy influence than Cabinet members. Bush began, as did many predecessors, by saying he wanted Cabinet government. But it does not seem to be working out that way. It's probably too early for any final judgments on how this administration will operate, but the examples in the last couple weeks of Cabinet officials being overruled are telling. As for Bush's personal role, my impression is that he is a delegator, but keeps the decisions for himself on the issues he really cares about.
New Brunswick, N.J.: How much money was spent overall on the 2000 campaign? If $771 million was spent on TV, what percentage does that represent of overall campaign spending?
David S. Broder: There are no firm figures on what was spent at all levels of the 2000 campaign, but estimates run to somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion. But these are very rough guesses.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Could one say that the extreme degree of ideological organization and control in the Bush administration as compared with the Clinton administration has the effect of preventing innovative solutions to the current crisis? Their only response is to use it to sell their 1.5-year-old tax cut proposal.
David S. Broder: I do not think the Bush administration is much different from its predecessors in its penchant for public relations and salesmanship. This has been a central part of every White House at least since Eisenhower's time, and is a phenomenon of this mass-media age. I do not expect it to change.
East Lansing, Mich.: I seem to remember reading something about the Democrats' having reached the conclusion that they could not achieve a congressional majority without reaching into areas of the country where they did poorly in the 2002 election -- particularly the South and Midwest -- and that this was leading some Democrats to argue that the party needed to reach "rural white males" to do so. I can't remember where I read this, and so I'm wondering whether there is such talk going on and, if so, how it will play out in terms of the Democrats' policy positions in the next couple of years.
David S. Broder: I have heard Democratic congressional strategists say exactly that -- that they cannot write off rural America and the South and hope to regain a majority in the House. That makes them strong advocates of financial relief for farmers and it also makes them much more cautious about advocating gun control measures. Whether they can break through in rural America seems questionable to me, but there's no doubt they see a need to try. Remember, however, that the population growth is taking place mainly in metro areas, in cities and their suburbs.
Lincolnshire, Ill.: Here's a speculative judicial question: How much of the original McCain-Feingold do you think would withstand Supreme Court scrutiny? The Supreme Court view of First Amendment protections seems to be the giant X factor that few "reformers" address directly.
David S. Broder: I'm happy to hear from Lincolnshire, which was a rural area where I occasionally would go horseback riding during my growing-up years in Chicago Heights.
To answer your question, many scholars question whether the restrictions in McCain-Feingold on issue ads naming candidates during the weeks before Election Day would stand scrutiny in the courts. I have read the legal arguments on both sides and, as a non-lawyer, I think the issue is one that the courts will have to settle.
Washington, D.C.: When did money become "free speech"?
David S. Broder: Money is not equated with free speech, but the Supreme Court in Buckley vs. Valeo said that the two are linked closely enough that the government must have a compelling reason -- such as prevention of corruption or the appearance of corruption -- to justify regulation of campaign expenditures or contributions. They granted more leeway for regulation of contributions than of expenditures, saying the link to speech was more tenuous in that case.
Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Broder, wanted to tell you that I read your column as often as possible and you are very informative and even-handed, too. About your comment on public financing of campaigns, for some reason this idea bothers me. To use an extreme example, what if somebody from the American Nazi party or KKK decides to run for office? Why should my tax dollars be used to help someone campaign on positions that are repugnant and immoral to me?
David S. Broder: Your point about using tax dollars to subsidize political parties that are repugnant to you is a good one. But our taxes may be used for other activities we may personally oppose. My view is that the benefits of freeing candidates from the money chase and increasing competition in our political system would outweigh the costs of fringe candidates grabbing a small portion of those funds.
Rockville, Md.: Are the senators afraid to deal with the question of the cost of TV ads because they worry that broadcasters will take revenge at the next election by slanting news against those who voted for such legislation?
David S. Broder: The Senate yesterday actually put some teeth into the requirement that TV stations offer their lowest ad rates to candidates, so give the 70 senators who supported that amendment credit for their courage. Whether it stays in the bill until it becomes law is another question, because the broadcasters have great influence -- part of it coming from their control of access to the prime medium of communication.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Broder:
What is the status on the Florida "recounts" that are ongoing? Is it "over," as far as the American public finding out who really won? What is the likely impact if we find out that Al Gore actually won in Florida?
The uncertainty remains.
David S. Broder: The Washington Post and other major papers are part of a consortium that is financing and overseeing an exhaustive recanvass of the Florida vote. Results are expected later this spring. I think the effort is worthwhile, for the sake of history, but I doubt that it will have much short-term political impact.
Alexandria, Va.: Wouldn't it make more sense for Democrats to seek opportunities in fast-growing parts of the Sunbelt --- Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Virginia -- than in stagnant rural areas?
David S. Broder: The Democrats and Republicans will both target the growth states and the growth areas within those states, which mainly means focusing on suburban districts. There will be many more suburban-dominated districts after the lines are redrawn to meet the new population Census results.
Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C.: During the campaign, President Bush frequently stated that he would run a White House not motivated by polls, but by convictions. Some of his recent policy moves suggest that he, indeed, will act from his conservative heart and not from popular sentiment, like his flip-flop on CO2. But doesn't the White House have to be driven by polls in some way? Won't Bush's political "capital" diminish when public opinion polls start to dip?
David S. Broder: You are right, in my view, in suggesting that no president can ignore public opinion, but one need not be as preoccupied with polling on a week to week basis as President Clinton was. Over time, people will form an overall judgment on a president, from many experiences, and that is far more critical to his political future than the polling on any particular subject in a particular week.
Indianapolis, Ind.: I'm was surprised by Rep. Ganske's obvious frustration with President Bush's position on the patients bill of rights. Ganske's proposal is using Texas reforms that are working and Bush endorsed the Dingle-Norwood HMO patients bill of rights. I'm sure I have some of the details wrong but I'm confussed too. Why hasn't Bush got a bill in writing yet instead so the two proposals can be compared? Can you comment on what the confusion is? At first Bush supported Ganske and just wanted him to hold off on presenting his bill, now Bush is threatening a veto.
David S. Broder: My understanding is that the core issues concern the number of people who would be covered by the legislation and the available remedies -- when you could sue and how much in damages you could seek. Bush wants less coverage and less access to courts and less in penalties than the major bills now before Congress -- but there appears to be room for bargaining on a suitable compromise.
Alexandria, Va.: With the president and Congress focusing so much attention on school and teacher performance, aren't they letting local school boards and state legislators off the hook for their own responsibilities? When I was a public school teacher in Jacksonville, Fla., I was faced with the impossible situation of teaching in a classroom with 70 kids and I sure didn't create that classroom. The school board did, but I was the one blamed for the chaos that ensued. Isn't that sort of similar to what's going on now?
David S. Broder: I think both Bush and Congress understand that education is primarily a state and local responsibility. But they are pressing for tougher standards and closer monitoring of school performance. There's a tension between local responsibility and the desire for national standards, and those federalism issues will be front and center when the Senate and House take up the education bills later this spring.
Arlington, Va.: Care to comment on the Brown University race reparations ad flap? Does it say anything about freedom of speech on campus, or is that taking it too seriously?
David S. Broder: As you would expect, my sympathies lie with the student newspaper's decision to run the ad. If the First Amendment means anything, it protects speech that is offensive to some of us. The best way to deal with such speech is to rebut it, not censor it.
DuPont Circle: Do you agree that there is a huge disconnect between Bush's rhetoric (as exemplified by his budget address to Congress) and his actual policies? A commentator recently said that Reagan governed less conservatively than he talked, and it appears Bush is prepared to do the reverse. Do you agree? (I find it beyond distressing that the professionalization of politics leads candidates to target such a narrow, non-ideological swath of voters that even strong policy disagreements often aren't discernible in rhetoric.)
David S. Broder: Bush is a conservative. The "compassionate" adjective referred to a few areas where he is more tolerant and flexible than some other conservatives are seen to be. But on the basic economic and social issues, he is conservative. And his style of governing is to fight for his positions until the last moment, then accept the best compromise he can get, and move on.
Fairfax, Va.: I believe that the people who compare money in politics to water and a broken dyke are accurate in their analogy. Should campaign finance reform pass, then before the ink is dry on the president's signature, lawyers for both parties and all the special interests will be trying to figure out the loopholes to give their candidate or issue an advantage. Then we will be right back where we are now, where everyone is violating the spirit of the law, if not the letter.
Am I being too cynical or do I have a valid point?
David S. Broder: No, you are not being too cynical. Past efforts to regulate particular channels of money from the private sector to the political world have often had unintended consequences. But there is an element of extortion in the soft money system, where business and labor and essentially forced to ante up large sums, that can be eliminated -- and that is worth doing, I think. Comprehensive reform requires more than that, so I applaud the amendments that have been added in the Senate to reduce TV costs and empower candidates facing self-financed millionaire opponents.
Austin, Tex.: How strong is the resentment in the Congress over the way Bush won the election. And what are the repercussions of he Democrats taking control of the Senate or the House in the next election?
David S. Broder: There was great resentment in the Congressional Black Caucus over the Florida voting procedures, and some anger among Democrats generally. My sense is that now the Democrats are much more focused on their policy disagreements with the Bush administration than on the circumstances of the last election. If the Democrats achieve a majority in Congress, Bush would have a much harder time enacting his domestic agenda.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Perhaps it is true that TV is the problem. However, if candidates' spending potentials are lowered through eliminating soft money, won't it be easier to put pressure on the broadcast industry to lower their ad rates in the spirit of the public good? Isn't the reason TV can demand such high prices for ads by candidates because the candidates can afford to pay?
David S. Broder: You make a good point. Soft money pays for issue ads, which drive up the price the stations can charge candidates. So if soft money disappears, rates may come down. However, if the soft money is converted into independent expenditure campaigns by non-party groups, the same problem will exist. I am not at all sanguine about the TV station owners voluntarily lowering ad rates.
Gloucester, Mass.: Mr. Broder,
You have been extremely articulate throughout this campaign finance debate. Could you tell me a little bit about the public financing proposals in the House and Senate and their merits? I know that it was debated yesterday in the Senate, but I know there exist other proposals.
Also, if you could comment on the opposition viewpoint to public financing as well, I'd appreciate it. Thank you.
David S. Broder: Thank you for your comment. Yesterday, Sen. Wellstone of Minnesota offered an amendment that would have allowed states to set up their own public financing systems for House and Senate candidates. It was tabled by a wide margin, and I do not expect any other public financing proposals to fare any better.
McKinney, Tex.: Why is Bush so far right on patients' rights? In Texas, he voted a Republican bill, then refused to even sign it when it passed by a margin that made it veto proof. Now, Bush is doing the same thing at the national level, even the conservative plans give allow the patients too much say in their treatment for Bush. What motivates this radical position in Bush?
David S. Broder: I can't speculate about Bush's motivation on the HMO bills, but generally speaking, he has been skeptical or hostile to measures that would increase the exposure of business of any kind to litigation.
State College, Pa.: Mr. Broder,
Regarding your suggestion for publicly financed congressional elections, please correct me if I'm wrong, but couldn't the television stations be required to give a certain amount of advertising time free to legitimate candidates? If the FCC can require them to do public service announcements in their licensing agreements, why not this too?
David S. Broder: The FCC in the last administration began to consider a rule requiring TV stations to give limited amounts of free time to political candidates and Congress (including, notably, Sen. John McCain) told FCC Chairman Kennard to back off, that only Congress had authority to impose such a requirement. So far, the broadcasters have been easily able to forestall any free-time bill in Congress.
Austin, Tex.: How much do you think plans that address the campaign finance issue from the demand side (i.e., requiring TV stations to donate air time for campaigns and otherwise making campaigning for federal office less costly) would help the problem? Do you see this as a legitimate route for reform or a cop out by those who truly do not want to change the system?
David S. Broder: I do not see it as a cop-out, though I recognize some opponents of McCain-Feingold (like Sen. Mitch McConnell) voted for the amendment on TV rates yesterday in hopes of killing the underlying bill. But I think realistic reform has to address the costs of campaigning along with the sources of contributions.
Sarasota, Fla.: Mr. Broder based on Mr. Bush's actions during the early days of his administration, can we conclude that he is closer to Newt Gingrich and the contract for America in his thinking rather than the moderate republican that his campaign presented him? Jim Brown
David S. Broder: As I said in response to an earlier question, Bush is a conservative -- and is governing on a conservative agenda. In personality, he is very different from Newt Gingrich.
Arlington, Va.: I can't believe that the Democrats have not been able to capitalize at all on the questionable legitimacy of Bush's electoral victory. It seems a little too convenient that the swell of stories on Clinton's pardons arose just at the right moment when this might have still been a potent issue. From your vantage point, to what extent do you think this issue was engineered (rather than just encouraged) by Republican operatives?
David S. Broder: The pardons were issued by President Clinton, and the responsibility is his -- not the Republicans' -- in my view. The timing was certainly inconvenient for the Democrats, but I think that is an issue they will have to raise with Mr. Clinton.
I have enjoyed chatting with all of you, and look forward to my next time on the Web. Now, I have to do an interview. Thanks. Dave Broder
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