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Band of Cynics

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
Friday, October 28, 1997; Page A21


President Clinton's opponents say he broke the law by raising piles of "soft money" in 1996 and running all those television ads attacking Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich.

Clinton's foes know this because they have those White House tapes wherein the president admits unequivocally that the ads were key to his reelection – "central to the position I now enjoy in the polls," he said.

To make sense of this, you have to separate the hyperventilating accusers from what the president is accused of. The accusation is serious. Many of the accusers lack credibility.

In taking taxpayer money to finance his campaign, Clinton agreed not to raise private money for the general election. Yet the Democratic National Committee raised millions to run "issue" ads.

The ads attacked Dole and Gingrich on that fearsome foursome of issues: Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment. The DNC was used as a front for the Clinton campaign.

Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate committee investigating the 1996 mess, has it right. "If the interpretation is that this is legal, and that this is proper, then we have no campaign finance system in the country anymore." Clinton, using loopholes he claims were legal, unilaterally repealed the law.

Thompson has standing to say this. He has been a consistent advocate of new reforms to end the campaign spending shenanigans. That's not the case with many of his colleagues.

Among Clinton's fiercest critics are those who say campaign finance regulations are unconstitutional. "Isn't that an interesting paradox?" an understated Sen. John McCain said in an interview.

McCain is a co-sponsor of a campaign reform bill with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). The bill's strongest opponents are also the fiercest critics of Clinton's fund-raising.

Free spending on political speech, they say, is a First Amendment right. If they believe that, they should view Clinton not as a knave but as a First Amendment hero. They ought to hold testimonial dinners to raise money for his legal bills.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and former president of Common Cause, was one of the first in the country to attack Clinton for breaking the campaign law in 1996. During the campaign, he put together Common Cause's plea to the Justice Department to investigate both parties for soft money violations.

Wertheimer suggests that Republicans who want to go after Clinton need to pass three tests. First, will they acknowledge that Bob Dole and the Republicans also broke the law? Will they condemn and call for a halt to similar shredding of the campaign laws by the Republican and Democratic committees that spend bundles to elect members to the House and Senate? And will they vote to close down the soft money system that made the Clinton extravaganza possible?

Thompson passes that test. So do McCain and Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), another battler for reform.

What about their anti-reform colleagues? "The Republicans who are attacking President Clinton for improperly spending soft money in his campaign and at the same time are trying to preserve the soft money for their own use are playing a duplicitous and dishonest game," Wertheimer says.

You get suspicious of the motivations of those who act as if this tape has told us something we didn't already know. After all, Bob Woodward told us about this in his book, "The Choice," published in the summer of 1996.

Woodward reported that Clinton micromanaged the DNC's advertising campaign, going over the texts of the ads line by line. This "direct hands-on involvement was risky," Woodward wrote and was "certainly in violation of the spirit of the law, and possibly illegal." Exactly.

In July 1996, the Dole campaign, citing Woodward, complained about the Clinton ad campaign to the Federal Election Commission. But at the same time, the Republican National Committee was running a comparable soft money campaign for Dole. Dole, with admirable honesty, acknowledged that the spending was designed to elect him. "It never says that I'm running for president," he said at the time, "though I hope that it's fairly obvious since I'm the only one in the picture."

Democrats can't defend Clinton by saying the Republicans are hypocrites. What the president did was wrong. With a little help from Dole, Clinton put the final knife into the back of the post-Watergate reforms.

But as long as Republicans profess to be outraged by Clinton while refusing to change a system that made the outrages possible, their charges will be viewed, deservedly, as cynical. Thompson, McCain, Shays and their handful of allies keep trying to enhance their party's credibility, but it doesn't seem interested.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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