Jewish World Review August 23, 2004 / 6 Elul, 5764
John H. Fund
Why we're refighting Vietnam: Blame McCain-Feingold
How did we get into this mess? Much of the presidential campaign this month has been consumed with a dispute about whether John Kerry told tall tales about his service in Vietnam 35 years ago.
The media were similarly fixated on ancient history several months ago, after filmmaker Michael Moore, at a Wesley Clark rally, labeled President Bush "a deserter" and Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said the president had been "AWOL" during his service in the Texas Air National Guard. Mr. Bush had to produce his dental records to quiet the storm. Now in response to the anti-Kerry ad by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, MoveOn.org is airing an ad accusing Mr. Bush of using family ties to evade serving overseas during Vietnam.
This is insanity. While partisans may delight in playing gotcha over uncertain Vietnam-era memories, voters are likely to wonder about when the issues they care about will get discussed.
It's fair to say that the so-called campaign finance reform that Mr. Bush signed into law in 2002 will result in more money being plowed into negative advertising during this campaign than ever before. The McCain-Feingold law was supposed to curb the influence of big money in politics. Instead, it has led to an avalanche of money landing in the coffers of so-called 527 groups. The name comes from the section of the tax code that allows independent groups to raise and spend as much as they want on political ads so long as they don't expressly advocate a candidate or coordinate their campaign with political parties or candidates.
So far, the 527 action has mostly been on the Democratic side. Billionaire financier George Soros has given some $15 million to such liberal 527 advocacy groups as MoveOn.org and America Coming Together. Together, such groups have spent more than $50 million on Bush-bashing TV ads they claim were not coordinated at all with the Kerry campaign. Now the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, backed by money from Republican donors, have produced two anti-Kerry ads questioning his service in Vietnam and his subsequent career as an antiwar activist who charged U.S. soldiers with committing atrocities.
Democrats have filed a formal compliant with the Federal Election Commission, charging that the Swift Boat group is illegally coordinating its ads with the Bush campaign. Such a complaint is almost impossible to prove and almost certainly destined for the FEC's circular file. Last week, the FEC did meet to pass some new restrictions on 527 groups, but they will take effect only in the 2006 elections. Even then, no one expects the new rules to slow down the 527s much.
Although no one is ever likely to prove coordination between 527s and any political campaign, it doesn't take a genius to realize that campaign finance reform makes it easier and more convenient for both sides to run nasty advertising while avoiding any accountability for toxic messages. Political parties might not be able to endure the criticism that would accompany the Swift Boat ad questioning Mr. Kerry's military record or a liberal ad that ties President Bush's policies to the poisoning of pregnant women. Far from banishing money from politics, McCain-Feingold has merely moved it out of the major parties and into the political shadows, where it is less accountable.
Indeed, for all the effort that has gone into trying to establish a link between the Swift Boat anti-Kerry ads and such Bush aides as Karl Rove, the even closer connections between liberal 527s and the Kerry campaign have gone largely unremarked. No Bush 527 has donors who have given nearly as much as the millions that Mr. Soros or investment analyst Peter Lewis have given to liberal groups. Jim Jordan, a former Kerry campaign manager, is now the spokesman for the Media Fund, the biggest liberal 527. Zack Exley, the former Internet director of MoveOn.org, now performs the same tasks for the Kerry campaign.
Indeed, it is remarkable how so many people who backed McCain-Feingold restrictions on soft money now embrace the 527s that have brought a flood of new cash into politics. Hollywood in particular has fallen in love with liberal 527s, lavishing millions on the groups through donations and concert tours. Chad Griffin, a consultant to Democrats on Hollywood giving, defends the practice: "We'll never be on equal financial ground with the Republicans, but hopefully, the playing field will be more level than in the past." This year, liberals now suddenly seem to believe there is no such thing as too much money in politics, as long as it flows to their side. Writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd, a rare Hollywood Republican, says he's astonished at the hypocrisy he sees: "We've opened a Pandora's box. Anyone who truly believes in campaign finance reform doesn't do an end run around it."
Media outlets, which are now wallowing in the drama of the Swift Boat/Bush bashing crossfire, seem unable to explain how we have sunk to this level of discourse. "Reporters and pundits remain silent about the perversion of the very system they championed for years," says Vaughn Ververs, editor of the political tip sheet Hotline. "To them, it seems, simply saying 'reform' is as good as actually having it."
To their credit, a few journalists are now seeing the scales fall from their eyes. The Washington Post's David Broder, dean of the Beltway press corps, now admits that "it is virtually impossible to control the flow of money from the private sector into the political world. . . . The best one can hope is that new rules do not produce more unintended negative consequences than benefits. McCain-Feingold is flunking that test."
Sen. George Allen, who once occupied Thomas Jefferson's seat in the Virginia Legislature, says that the only way to honor the First Amendment's protections of political speech is to let everyone contribute whatever he wants but require immediate disclosure on the Internet. The alternative, as we see today, is to let independent groups refight the Vietnam War, diverting attention and accountability from the candidates and their programs. The major losers in this latest round of unfriendly 527 fire are the voters, many of whom are too young to fully appreciate Vietnam and must wonder what any of this has to do with them.
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©2001, John H. Fund