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Jewish World ReviewFeb. 2, 2001 / 10 Shevat, 5761

Roger Simon

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Is 'soft money' the real problem?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- One of the reasons the public periodically tunes out of the campaign finance reform controversy is that the rules are so complicated you need to be a specialist to follow it and, indeed, the political parties spend a bundle on lawyers just to keep as many people as possible out of jail.

Basically, while "soft money" is unregulated, hard money is not.

A candidate can accept only $1,000 per election in hard money from an individual and $5,000 from a political action committee.

However, a candidate can set up a "leadership PAC" and take another $5,000 from individuals, though it can't be spent on the candidate's own campaign.

Political parties can accept $20,000 in hard money from individuals and $5,000 in PACS, but it can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, labor unions and individuals in soft money.

Soft money is supposed to be used for "party building" activities and "issue advertising," but the Clinton/Gore campaign of 1996 pioneered in using soft money to finance sharply focused ads designed to directly benefit the top of the ticket.

Parties must raise a certain amount of hard money before they can use soft money, however, so this means the relatively small $1,000 hard-money donor is extremely valuable, especially considering how many of them are out there in an America experiencing unprecedented wealth. Because politics never stops, fund raising never stops. Which is not, some argue, really as bad we have all been led to believe.

Presidential scholar Gil Troy argues that the impact of money on politics is often exaggerated and that it was the growth of democracy and reforms to the system that really caused the increase in the need for money.

And "currying the people's favor," which is what democracy is all about, he argues, has always been costly.

The amount of money George Washington spent on his two elections to the Virginia House of Burgesses was several times the going price for a house or plot of land. Washington bought rum punch, cookies and ginger cakes for the voters, he threw an election-eve ball complete with a fiddler, and he provided money for the poll watchers who recorded the tally. (Stick enough rum punch in a poll watcher, Washington seemed to know instinctively, and things like hanging chads are no longer an issue.)

As more and more people could vote, the cost of reaching them increased. Andrew Jackson's 1828 victory "may have cost as much as $1 million, much of it absorbed by the federal government, thanks to his legislative allies' convenient franking privileges," Troy says.

In 1864, every ward in Manhattan was "abundantly supplied with material aid" to assure the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.

There was reform, of course, but reform increased the need for other sources of money. When the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 made it illegal to assess federal officeholders for campaign contributions, the parties turned even further to private corporations to make up the loss.

In 1896, Republican political operative Mark Hanna raised $6 million to $7 million from corporations to put William McKinley in office, the equivalent of nearly $100 million today. In modern times, reformers wanted candidates picked by primaries and not party bosses, which was fair enough, but it meant the candidates now had to reach the primary voters directly -- and that required money for television.

Are the amounts spent on political campaigning really out of line with other forms of campaigning?

In 1996, Bill Clinton spent $169 million to be re-elected president. In that same year, the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. spent $247 million advertising chewing gum.

The huge amounts spent by campaigns are actually "modest," Troy argues, "considering how much it costs to attract attention in a nation of 265 million couch potatoes."



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