Agendas Detail Use of DNC Ads to Help ClintonBy Bob Woodward and Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 18, 1997; Page A01
The massive TV advertising campaign by the Democratic Party before last year's elections was designed explicitly to boost President Clinton's bid for a second White House term and to circumvent strict spending limits faced by presidential candidates, according to dozens of internal campaign documents.
The Democratic National Committee advertising was funded in part with about $25 million in "soft money," unlimited and largely unregulated contributions that by law cannot be used directly and explicitly to advocate the election of a specific candidate for federal office. But the previously undisclosed documents show how the DNC advertising was effectively used to promote Clinton's issues and reelection.
The legal implications of the new documents are a subject of dispute because a series of Federal Election Commission interpretations has opened the door to such advertising. Some groups, such as Common Cause, have argued that both major political parties engaged in "massive illegal schemes" during last year's election campaign to violate the presidential spending limits and the restrictions on the use of soft money donations from corporations and labor unions.
Attorney General Janet Reno last year rejected the public interest lobby group's request for an independent counsel to investigate both campaigns.
But the new documents obtained from Republican and Democratic sources provide stark new evidence of how closely linked the DNC advertising and Clinton-Gore reelection efforts were and how the DNC ad drive was focused almost exclusively on Clinton's reelection, giving additional ammunition to those who contend the party advertising scheme was illegal.
The documents come to light as Reno is considering whether to seek appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Vice President Gore's telephone solicitations from the White House of contributions to help fund the DNC advertising campaign.
The documents consist primarily of detailed agendas by Clinton's chief political strategist, Dick Morris, for the weekly campaign strategy sessions Clinton held with top aides.
In the documents, Morris makes little or no distinction between DNC soft money and Clinton-Gore campaign money, viewing them at times as a collective war chest to be used for advertising that exclusively featured Clinton and his reelection campaign issues.
Morris draws a direct connection in the documents between boosting Clinton's poll numbers and the millions in DNC soft money spent on television advertising. DNC advertising costs totaled $44 million in 1995 and 1996, according to former DNC national chairman Donald L. Fowler.
White House and Clinton-Gore campaign officials have said repeatedly that they were careful to keep DNC advertising within legal limits and that they were legally permitted to work with the DNC in orchestrating its media effort.
Lyn Utrecht, the Clinton-Gore campaign's general counsel, said yesterday that FEC rules clearly permit such issue advertising as long as there is no "express advocacy" to elect or defeat an identified candidate. "It's the content of the ads that makes a difference, and it's the only thing that makes a difference," she said. "If you look at intent, that would be ludicrous because everything [the parties] are doing is intended to have the candidates reelected."
In perhaps the most explicit memorandum, dated Dec. 7, 1995, Morris makes the case for heavy DNC advertising in the early months of 1996 and directly links that to Clinton's approval ratings during the primary season.
"In primaries," Morris wrote, "we need to maintain presence to prevent erosion in [poll] numbers." He estimated that the DNC would need to foot the bill for $15 million to $18 million of advertising, adding, "We will work with lawyers on placement and content to avoid spending [Clinton-Gore] campaign money before April."
For each week's strategy session, Morris listed the anticipated media advertising by both the DNC and the Clinton-Gore campaign, which he referred to in memos as "CG." For example, for the week of March 12-18, he said, "DNC buy: $941,000; CG $330,000." He noted that the DNC buy would reach 33 percent of U.S. media markets, and the Clinton-Gore advertising 15 percent. Morris then added the numbers in a summary: "Total of US reached: 48 percent, Money spent: $1.3 million."
The Clinton-Gore and DNC ads were different. But a review of dozens of DNC ads shows that Clinton is the only Democratic candidate pictured or featured. His reelection themes of protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment are the issues presented in the DNC ads.
The Republican National Committee had its own advertising effort that helped buttress Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.), the prospective GOP presidential nominee, in the spring and summer of 1996. The RNC effort was significant because Dole by then had reached the legal limit of what he could spend from his own campaign, after a grueling primary battle.
As with the advertising by the DNC and the Clinton-Gore campaign, the RNC commercials were crafted by the same media team that produced Dole campaign ads. The ads did not explicitly urge Dole's election, but they either featured him or attacked Clinton. The RNC effort, which also used some soft money, eventually totaled about $18 million.
The Morris memos begin in March 1995, when Morris was pressing Clinton to reject federal matching funds for the primary campaign. In exchange for receiving the federal money, Clinton would be limited to spending around $37 million during the primaries. In a March 2, 1995, memorandum, Morris warned that if Clinton accepted the matching funds, he would not be able to "do TV in key primary states."
Rejecting the matching funds, Morris argued, would free Clinton to finance a $40 million advertising effort.
Clinton's other top advisers were united in opposition to that approach. By July 1995, Morris recounted in a deposition taken by Senate investigators, Erskine B. Bowles, then deputy White House chief of staff, told him, "I think you should have a Plan B . . . to accomplish what you want to accomplish through advertising politically without rejecting federal matching money." Morris, in the deposition, said he recalled telling Bowles, "I have no idea how we could do that."
But Morris soon learned of a technique that would let him do the massive advertising campaign he wanted and have the bill paid by the DNC. The technique was known as "issue advocacy," and the only catch was that the commercials paid for by the DNC could not advocate Clinton's reelection outright, something Morris said he didn't want to do anyway. "I was delighted because it completely fit the purposes that I had in mind," Morris said.
In a June 21, 1995, memorandum, Morris pressed Clinton to "Run TV Ads Now." "We may now have the numbers we need to enter [the] election with. We are certainly very close. Now, keep approval in high 50s and vote in mid-forties and let it sink in and become baseline," Morris said, referring to Clinton's public opinion poll ratings and projected percentage of the vote in his bid for reelection.
The ads run in the next several weeks, about the administration's anti-crime program, were paid for with about $2.5 million in Clinton-Gore campaign funds, "hard money" that can be used directly to benefit candidates' campaigns. But beginning in the late summer of 1995, Morris turned to the DNC for most of the advertising.
One memorandum from that period, dated Aug. 3, 1995, details how one goal of a proposed advertising campaign on Medicare was "splitting the Republicans" who might be Clinton's general election opponents.
Figuring out how to fund the massive advertising campaign was a continuing obsession, the documents show. Among the "key questions" Morris listed for discussion on Sept. 7, 1995, was whether the Clinton-Gore campaign could hold down non-advertising spending enough to pump $20 million into the advertising effort, and whether the DNC could raise another $33 million beyond what was already budgeted.
"Can we stop DNC from spending the money on things other than our ads," Morris asked.
The next week, discussing how to structure "four flights" of television advertising between September and the Democratic National Convention 11 months away, Morris outlined the January-to-April advertising as "answers to Republican primary attacks on us." Morris said the ads would cost "$15 million run in primary states, which are also swing states for us." Then he noted the "need to work to make it state parties/DNC" in other words, to justify running the advertising with party funds.
In the deposition taken by Senate investigators, Morris said he thought DNC and Clinton campaign lawyers were "obsessively" concerned with keeping the DNC advertising within legal bounds. "They would bend over backward in ways I considered ridiculous" in an "overly conservative interpretation of the law," Morris said, adding that the attorneys "were constantly editing out . . . any references to Clinton that were not within the direct four walls of legislative advocacy."
He said DNC general counsel Joseph E. Sandler and Utrecht, the Clinton campaign lawyer who took an even stricter approach, insisted that advertising paid for by the DNC had to relate to issues pending before Congress and that DNC ads were limited in the degree to which they could show Clinton's picture or that of his possible GOP opponents. The lawyers also refused to allow issue ads to run within four weeks of a primary election, Morris said.
"Very often the debates between Sandler and Utrecht on the one hand and me on the other were very acrimonious because I was constantly chafing at the restrictions that they were putting on me," Morris recalled in his deposition.
Ultimately, Morris was forced to abide by the Sandler-Utrecht restrictions. But a Feb. 22, 1996, memorandum showed how DNC advertising was aimed at Clinton's GOP opponents. Morris detailed how the Clinton-Gore campaign would spend only $2.5 million on advertising between then and the end of May "unless [former Tennessee governor Lamar] Alexander is nominated and we cannot use DNC money to attack him." However, Morris wrote, "if Dole is nominated, we need no additional CG money for media before May 28 since we can attack Dole with DNC money."
Morris insisted in the deposition that if the sustained DNC advertising assault on "Dole-Gingrich" had any effect on the political standing of Dole, then Clinton's likely opponent, it was "incidental" or "inadvertent."
In a May 4, 1996, memo, Morris returned to the subject of advertising, again indicating that the purpose of the media blitz was to reelect Clinton. The selection of the media markets would be determined by four factors, Morris wrote, including where the "Clinton margin of defeat or loss" was closest, Clinton's chances of carrying the state, and "the electoral vote of the state."
Researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.
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