Gore and Bush jostle over reform

The vice president takes up campaign finance, and both parties spin for the upper hand.

Published March 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Like George W. Bush emerging from the ashes of the New Hampshire primary as a born-again reformer, Vice President Al Gore reinvented himself Monday as a campaign-finance crusader, issuing a "plan to restore faith in America's democracy." Gore spoke in Milwaukee, flanked by hometown Sen. Russell Feingold, Arizona Sen. John McCain's Democratic co-crusader for campaign reform in the Senate.

Gore tried to brush aside questions surrounding his own 1996 fund-raising scandals, including raising money at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles on behalf of the Clinton-Gore reelection effort, focusing instead on his new plan, which includes some public funding of elections.

"I understand the doubts about whether I personally am serious on
campaign reform," Gore said, "and I understand all too well the irony of our current fund-raising system."

Gore's plea to save him from himself was met with expected guffaws at Camp Bush in Austin. "Any promise to reform our campaign-finance system will ring hollow unless
it is grounded in credibility, credibility based on consistency, integrity
and disclosure," Bush said in a statement released Monday.

"We need an attorney general, a president and a vice
president who will live by and enforce the laws we currently have on the
books. Unless the vice president stops withholding information about his
own fund-raising excesses, the American people will question his commitment
to reforming the fund-raising practices of others."

Sheila Krumholz, research director for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog on campaign finance issues, said the vice president's proposals were "intriguing because we haven't seen some of these things before," but remained skeptical about the success of any incremental reform proposal. "Realistically, you can't clamp down here and not expect the money to come gushing over here," she said. "There is always the law of unintended consequences. Often these piecemeal reforms have drastic ones and just open up more loopholes."

While she conceded it would be difficult to propose an air-tight reform proposal, she said there was certainly room for improvement. "We could benefit from a more holistic approach -- looking at the big picture. There has not yet been a real serious look at the proposals that are out there. There hasn't been a really comprehensive analysis of the problem and the policy to address it."

Krumholz said the reason campaign reform has not taken hold is because voters have not cried out for it. "There hasn't been the groundswell on the grass-roots level."

But while campaign finance may not be a burning issue among voters, Monday was yet another example of how Gore has tried to pick up on McCain's primary attacks against Bush. Nobody ever accused the vice president of being subtle, and Gore invoked the Arizona senator more than a dozen times in his Monday speech. For his part, McCain continued to walk the post-primary high wire, expressing cautious optimism about Gore's new proposal, while taking some gentle slaps at Gore himself.

"The campaign-finance abuses of the current administration prove beyond a shadow of a doubt how badly reform is needed," McCain said in a statement Monday. "While parts of his proposal merit serious consideration ... the vice president needs to back his words with meaningful, bipartisan action, as well as call for a complete and open investigation of 1996 campaign-finance irregularities."

Instead, Gore opted for the "we've all made mistakes" excuse, trying to convince voters to look past the scandals that continue to hinder his presidential campaign. "In fighting for what we believe in, Democrats, along
with Republicans, engaged in fund-raising that pushed the system to the
breaking point and fueled further cynicism, which over time undermines the
very things we're fighting for," Gore said. "I've got the scars to prove it, and I know I may be an imperfect messenger for this cause. But the real wounds will be to our democracy itself unless we address this problem."

The Bush campaign was unmoved by the veep's pseudo-confessional moment. "He's been out raising soft money while he decided he would announce this proposal," said Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. "His sincerity is still in question. "

When asked whether campaign-finance reform would be a major issue this summer and fall, Tucker said, "For some reason, Al Gore has decided to make it a large issue, probably because he has some making up to do for mistakes he's made in the past. Gov. Bush's top domestic priority will be education. Gov. Bush makes decisions based upon what's best for Texas. He has always said if you feel like a candidate will be swayed by a $1,000 contribution, then you probably shouldn't vote for that candidate."

Gore's new proposal is not targeted at the $1,000 maximum contributions individuals can make to a campaign, but at the unregulated soft-money contributions unions, corporations and individuals can make to campaign support systems like state and national parties. According to the Center for Responsive Politics Web site, 249 groups have already contributed more than $100,000 during the current election cycle.

Two of the three largest soft-money donations came from unions that have each given more than $1 million to Democrats thus far. Many of the other top soft-money donors, corporations like Citibank, Microsoft and Federal Express, give six-figure sums to each political party to cover their bases.

The Bush campaign has also agreed to a ban of soft money -- as long as it comes in tandem with a so-called "paycheck protection plan" which would force labor unions to receive written consent from their members before using union dues for political purposes. Such a ban was also supported by McCain, but the Arizona senator wanted to force corporations to also seek consent from company shareholders before making political donations.

In the end, Tucker said, Bush's vision for campaign-finance reform is based on disclosure. She pointed out that Bush has posted a list of his donors on his campaign Web site, and that "Gov. Bush says we should let the sun shine in on campaign financing and every knows who's giving to who."

Suzy Woodford, executive director of the Texas chapter of the campaign-finance group Common Cause, says the governor has been an obstacle to political reform in his home state, where there are no limits on individual contributions. "He's been silent on the issue in Texas," Woodford said. "He made it clear that he was opposed to any kind of limits to money that individuals or PACs could give."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore Campaign Finance Democratic Party George W. Bush