Ask George W. Bush, and he'll tell you he's the candidate for voters who don't like the status quo. "If people like the status quo, if they're happy with what's happening in Washington," Bush said, they can vote for Al Gore. Then, "You can come down and go fishing with me in Texas."
That's what Bush said last week. This week, the Washington status quo threw a big party, a fund-raiser for none other than Texas Gov. George W. Bush. You get a feel for Tuesday's event here from The Post's Susan Glasser, who described the invitation list as "the equivalent of a Republican social register." Alison Mitchell of the New York Times called the crowd "a veritable who's who of Republican power brokers."
When you look at the eagerness with which the K Street lobbying establishment is tossing $1,000 checks Bush's way, you realize that his description of the 2000 election may be a bit off. It's not a choice for or against the status quo. The issue is which status quo will prevail in the new millennium.
Campaign finance reformers will press that point for the next 16 months. It could also be the wedge Bush and Gore's competitors in the primaries -- notably Sen. John McCain on the Republican side and former senator Bill Bradley for the Democrats -- use to open up both nomination fights.
"Riding into Washington with the Washington money players and saying `change is here!' is a quaint concept," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and the eminence grise of the campaign reform movement. "How do you run as a Washington outsider when your campaign is loaded with big-money players and lobbyists who are at the core of the status quo?"
Bush and Gore are not the only people going after big money. McCain is also working the Washington cash circuit, and Bradley has had his own fund-raising successes on Wall Street, in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
So McCain and Bradley are not pure on this issue. But they have histories as reformers. McCain, for the moment, has the biggest opportunity. In the Senate, he is the leading Republican sponsor of a campaign reform bill that is being slowly strangled in the House by delay and more delay.
The word around Washington is that McCain plans to press hard for passage of the bill on the Senate floor within the next few weeks. At best, McCain might push a bill toward passage. But even if he fails, McCain could once again lift himself above his competitors.
McCain gave his campaign a boost with his clear and unequivocating stand on the Kosovo war. It took George W. a few days to realize he needed a clear position on Kosovo, too. Now McCain could stand out as the critic of the money system that keeps the status quo in place.
It's said that campaign finance reform is not an issue with much appeal to the Republican grass roots. If you're talking about the grass at, say, the Burning Tree Country Club, that's certainly true. But no one has ever tested the issue on the Main Streets of, say, Iowa and New Hampshire.
Among the Republicans uneasy with the political money system are rank-and-file social conservatives. They wonder why, on issues such as human rights in China, the business lobbies always seem to triumph over the religious and citizen lobbies. It's a point you can count on outsider Republican candidates Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan pressing in the coming months. But McCain is the candidate in a position to do something about the problem.
"Big business soft money is pro-China trade and pro-gambling," says William Kristol, the conservative editor and sometime political adviser. Some social conservatives, he says, may be uneasy with the parts of McCain's proposal that would reduce their ability to advertise on issues dear to them, such as abortion. "But on the $500,000 contributions from Philip Morris, Boeing or a Las Vegas casino, they don't think that's healthy for the system."
Republicans have good reason to press Gore about his role in the Democrats' campaign money juggernaut of 1996. Buddhist temple jokes go over very well on the GOP dinner circuit. But any time George W. raises the issue, his words could well be run over a television backdrop of the Washington lobbying crowd pressing eagerly to his side at this week's fund-raiser. It was a grand success for Bush's coffers, but not for his message.