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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 1999 /10 Tishrei, 5760

Brian Kennedy

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A scenario for last-minute entrants to shake up the 2000 presidential race --
THANKS TO THE WAY America's two-party political system has adapted to the ill-conceived campaign-finance reforms of the 1970s, the excitement is being drained from our most important political choice, the presidential election. Almost all the crucial competition now takes place in the realm of fund-raising more than a year before the general election, and before the primaries even start.

Sometime next spring, as a result, when most voters tune in for the first time, they will be presented with the choices the two big parties and a small number of primary voters have already made for them, almost certainly either a Bush vs. Gore or Bush vs. Bradley election. The big-party candidates will then both rush to the center, and the pallid campaign that results is likely to be dull and disappointing.

But it doesn't have to turn out this way. Imagine how much more interesting the presidential campaign would be if voters could choose not just between the Big Two's nominees, but among three, four, five, six, or even seven serious candidates. This is what information-age Americans have come to expect in almost every aspect of their lives except presidential politics: an abundance of choices and the ability to make a selection according to a convenient and suitable schedule. And here's the surprising news: Candidates desperate to have a voice and voters desperate to make their own choice could exploit a loophole in existing campaign-finance law to produce real competition.

The Republican and Democratic nominees will certainly still have a built-in advantage. Each will receive a federal grant of $70 million for the general election, the result of campaign-finance "reform" that bestows public money on candidates who agree not to spend any other funds in advocating their own election or their opponent's defeat. But with every reform there are loopholes, and campaign financing is no exception. Over the years, the Big Two have perfected the art of promoting their candidates through issue-advocacy advertising, funded by so-called soft-money contributions to political parties. It is this very loopholečsoft-money contributions are not regulatedčthat could throw the presidential election open to serious competition from other candidates as late as next summer. You can't mount a serious run for president as an independent unless you have a personal fortune. But you can start your own soft-money funded party.

Here's how it would work. Suppose for a moment that former California governor Pete Wilson, frustrated by the unwillingness of either George W. Bush or Al Gore to get tough on illegal immigration or push for the abolition of government's use of racial preferences, decides, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." Wilson then calls a press conference -- or maybe goes on Larry King Live -- and announces the formation of a new political party. Call it the Golden party. The party needs only enough organization to mount a "convention," at which Wilson is nominated, getting the candidate a line on the ballot in most states.

Like most minor-party candidates, Wilson would not be able to raise the funds to match the spending of the Big Two and their government-funded campaigns. Under federal law, he would be limited to asking for contributions of no more than $1,000 per donor. To raise $70 million would mean finding at least 70,000 donors. Not likely to happen.

But the Golden party candidate could still be competitive, because contributions to the Golden party would not be limited, as they would be to the Wilson for President committee. The party could raise a few million dollars of soft money, from a small number of donors, to get on the fifty state ballots. Then, as recent presidential races have demonstrated, there is no limit to the amount of issue-advocacy advertising the party could air featuring its nominee, as long as the commercial does not expressly advocate his election or the defeat of his opponents.

Accordingly, with just a handful of large, unregulated, soft-money contributions, the Golden party could in short order amass, say, a $20 million fund for TV ad buys, enough to make a viable candidate competitive in the general election. It's not hard to concoct any number of scenarios that could prove upsetting to the major-party candidates. There is already serious talk that the Reform party (which qualifies for $13 million of federal funds because of Ross Perot's past showings) will nominate Pat Buchanan. But that hardly exhausts the possibilities. How about a McCain-Feingold ticket running on the issue of campaign-finance reform? Or maybe a Parents and Schools party, frustrated by the lack of commitment to real education reform, will nominate some ambitious governor. A New Progressive party could run Jesse Jackson or Warren Beatty, demanding the Big Two do more than provide lip service to the problems of urban America. Or the Farmer Labor party might nominate senator Paul Wellstone to illustrate that the Big Two are not dealing seriously with the farm crisis.

Particular candidates aside, who can doubt the appeal to the mediačespecially if the election looks like a dull onečof a series of new "parties" whose candidates represent a real choice for jaded voters? What's more, these new parties, particularly if they responded to an unforeseen set of political circumstances, could quickly raise astonishing sums of unregulated soft-money. In the final month before the election, thousands of issue-advocacy TV commercials can have a serious impact.

While many potential candidates might not want to jeopardize their chances for a cabinet position under one of the leading candidates, other men and women who have long harbored presidential ambitions would probably be eager to run under such conditions. No longer would such self-starters face the prospect of spending three years running and fund-raising to win the Republican or Democratic party nomination. With far less effort, such a candidate could get himself directly on the ballot for the general election.

The moment when most voters would realize they have a real choice is the day the debate commission announced the schedule and invitation for "the debates." No longer would the commissioners be able to simply send the standard "Dear Mr. LaRouche" form letter to anyone not nominated by the Big Two. On what basis would the commission include Bush and Gore and yet exclude candidates of national stature whose "parties" are endowed with campaign treasuries of millions of dollars?

It would be a rich irony indeed if, next fall, sixty million viewers tuned in for debates between four, five, or six serious candidates, thanks to a soft-money loophole in our campaign-finance laws that is widely assumed to magnify the power of the two major parties. Yet there's no reason competition and excitement can't be restored to the presidential election under the rules as they are now written.

Brian Kennedy was the national political director of the Lamar Alexander presidential campaign, former chairman of the Republican party of Iowa, and former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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