Big Al's big idea

The vice president unveils an original but flawed plan for campaign finance reform.

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

If Al Gore had stood up in a traveling preacher's tent and declared himself so reformed, he'd be laughed into the River Jordan; not even the most rapt revival would believe him. Instead Gore, hoping to ride the heady camp-meeting passion of the John McCain Republican primary crusade, on Monday confessed himself saved on ground blessed by a bona fide campaign finance reformer.

I used to shake down corporations!

I used to sell the Lincoln Bedroom!

I used to call donors from the office!

Gore did not go quite that far Monday, but he did call himself a repentant campaign finance sinner. "I understand the doubts about whether I personally am serious on campaign finance reform," Gore said, making the extraordinary admission that in 1996 he and other Democrats "engaged in fund-raising that pushed the system to the breaking point and fueled further cynicism, which over time undermines the very things we are fighting for."

With McCain's legislative partner, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., at his side, Gore made his pitch to the national reform congregation -- a promise to support the McCain-Feingold ban on "soft money" and to establish a $7.1 billion "Democracy Endowment," to be funded by tax-deductible contributions. Instead of giving to individual candidates, individuals and corporations would give to the endowment. Gore's proposal also calls for free television advertising time for candidates; candidates for federal office would qualify for the trust fund and advertising time only if they accepted funding from no other source.

It might seem dangerous for the vice president to draw attention to his gravest political liability, the fund-raising scandals still swirling around the White House. But Gore's proposal is a symbolically daring stroke. A child of privilege endlessly mocked as wooden, Gore has gradually developed one of the best ears in politics for the rhythms and undercurrents of American culture. First, the man so stiff he was the butt of his own jokes -- an alumnus of the most exclusive prep school in Washington -- perfected Pentecostal oratory at the knee of Jesse Jackson. Then came yesterday's penitent baptism in campaign finance reform, replete with references to the salvation of American democracy.

Gore's proposal -- similar in some respects to "clean money" initiatives recently passed by voters in Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona -- won strong but qualified support from campaign finance reformers. "Gore is taking a bold step toward real campaign finance reform," says Donna Parson, national field director of Public Campaign.

But Parson points out that the vice president's proposal contains one significant flaw: It does not cover primaries, the key gateway race for challengers and new voices. "It makes no sense to allow candidates to raise tons of money from wealthy special interests for their primary campaigns, then turn around and get public financing for the general race."

That's not the only loophole in Gore's plan. For one thing, it is emphatically not taxpayer financing, even though it borrows liberally from public-financing proposals. Gore's privately funded endowment would limit the influence of special interests on individual candidates but not on the political process as a whole. The plan includes "public financing" only the way PBS, replete with sponsorships from the likes of the Archer Daniels Midland Co., is public television. It is designed to give corporations a new way to support political parties, but falls short of creating an option for full public support of candidates who abide by voluntary spending limits.

The plan also requires the cooperation of broadcasters, which might not be enforceable before today's anti-regulatory Supreme Court. At the same time, since candidates could opt out of the Democracy Endowment system, it would do nothing to limit the power of high-rolling donors over someone like George W. Bush, who early on decided to forgo federal matching funds and not abide by voluntary fund-raising limits in the primaries. And since under Gore's plan the fund would be overseen by presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate, the rules for distributing the money would still be drawn with considerable influence by incumbents.

Gore, who delivered his speech in Milwaukee clad in a preacherlike black shirt visible beneath his sport jacket, set out to remake himself as the prodigal son of campaign finance. He began by invoking his father's early investigations of campaign spending as a senator in the 1950s, recalling Al Gore Sr.'s defeat "in part because of the special-interest money that was funneled into his opponent's campaign by the Nixon dirty tricks operation." Gore went on to remember how he himself called for campaign finance reform as a newly elected congressman in 1978. It was only after that, as Gore told it, that he somehow lost his way.

"No decent public servant enters this line of work in order to raise money," he said Monday. Yet by 1996 he was devoting record amounts of his time to shaking down record amounts of money. "I know I may be an imperfect messenger for this cause," he said. Yet, like any fallen preacher, Gore promised to use "the full reach of the bully pulpit" to fight for campaign finance reform.

However weak as a practical reform measure, Gore's proposal, and his prodigal-son positioning, present Bush with a problem. Bush has been declaring himself a "reformer with results," but it is hard to believe the public will take seriously his laissez-faire "reform" proposals that would ban soft money only if unions' ability to use members' dues for political purposes were also eliminated.

Gore's act of repentance Monday attempted to mask his own past mistakes, but it was nevertheless a shrewd political move. Gore understands that for many voters, it is the act of confession that counts, not the particular path to repentance. Indeed, the only way for Bush to take Gore on may be to sidestep the technicalities of campaign finance and counter with a confession of his own past sins, political or otherwise. Then Bush and Gore could go head-to-head, one prodigal son against another.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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