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Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 2003 / 20 Kislev, 5764

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Return of pamphleteers | Readers looking for a good book this season should pick up William Safire's historical novel "Scandalmonger." The tale, which begins in 1792, of Philadelphia's mudslinging pamphleteers — who hurled crude personal invective and unsubstantiated charges against America's early leaders — should take on added import with the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to uphold the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

Safire's book explores an age when voters got their information not from newspapers with modern standards for balance and accuracy (imperfect as they may be), but from highly partisan pamphlets that baldly eschewed information in preference to propaganda.

Sort of like many Internet sites today.

But back to McCain-Feingold. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., wrote their bill to reduce the influence of big money in federal elections. Thus their measure limited donations to political parties to $25,000 per donor per year, with a $2,000 cap on contributions to candidates. No longer could millionaires cut six-figure checks for either party.

To prevent big donors from simply shifting their money to independent organizations in order to influence elections, McCain-Feingold also prohibited the airing of issue ads funded with "soft money" — money that exceeds the $25,000 limit — during the last 30 days of a primary and last 60 days of a general election.

Oddly, Washington Democrats, Republicans and grassroots political organizations largely reacted to McCain-Feingold, not based on what was best for them, but on principle. Really.

Arguing that it was important to chase big money out of politics, Democrats largely supported the 2002 measure, even though they expected its prohibition on huge donations to hurt the Democratic National Committee. (Not entirely selfless, the California Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against the law.)

Republicans tended to oppose the bill even though it is expected to help the GOP, which historically does a better job of raising small donations. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia captured the GOP's objection when he wrote in his dissenting opinion that he was surprised the Big Bench's majority "would smile with favor upon a law that cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: the right to criticize the government."

Independent groups such as the National Rifle Association and American Civil Liberties Union challenged the measure — even though they stood to gain as the bill could prompt partisan millionaires to write seven-figure checks to their organizations.

My fave: Over the years, billionaire George Soros has donated some $18 million to groups pushing for campaign-finance laws to limit big donations from fat-cat donors, such as himself.

Then, last month, Soros told the Washington Post he would donate $15 million to organizations working to defeat President Bush.

It makes you wonder: Was Soros trying to put a check on the power of (other) rich donors, or aggrandize his own power?

Under McCain-Feingold, both major parties will be weaker because their coffers won't swell with donations of more than $25,000. Meanwhile, fat cats - - read: Soros — can give unlimited beaucoup bucks to Internet-based organizations like the Bush-hating, to which Soros made a $5 million matching pledge.

California election law attorney Chuck Bell predicted that because the big-money independent ads will have to run 60 days before the actual vote, "they'll have to be very negative ads" in order to have an impact on the election.

The conservative Club for Growth, which ran spots against Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, and the liberal, lack history. They have no long-term constituents. The GOP and DNC advertise, aware that their members will be accountable for what they say. Party leaders also know that if they ratchet up the negativity, it can backfire on their candidates. But groups that have popped up on the Internet, like children, can say anything.

Sort of like the pamphleteers in Safire's "Scandalmonger."

The worst part is, while voters often are skeptical of claims made by the political parties, the Internet surfer can be astonishingly credulous. MoveOn. org's Web site has a contest for people to submit ads that tell "the truth" about Bush. The truth, as opposed to all that twaddle in articles and broadcast news, I presume.

"The truth," in 30 seconds.

Sens. McCain and Feingold did a brave thing when they set out to sever big money from D.C. politics. But in the end, their bill may not so much chase big money away from politics as drive big money and politics together into cruder arms.

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© 2003, Creators Syndicate