During the GOP primaries, Arizona Sen. John McCain slammed Gov. George W. Bush for having no campaign finance reform credentials with which he could credibly attack Vice President Al Gore, who has been tarnished in the 1996 Democratic National Committee fund-raising scandals. McCain saw his campaign assaulted by big donors using the very campaign finance loophole-creations he'd been fighting for years, most of them Bush supporters.
"When you're standing up there in a debate with Al Gore, you'll have nothing to say, because you support the current system," McCain would say, over and over again.
But McCain was underestimating Bush's willingness to dress himself up in reformer's duds, the record to the contrary, as well as Gore's penchant for painting bullseyes on himself. Despite the fact that this week Gore agreed to the soft money ban proposed by McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., and Bush has abjectly refused, Bush tried to paint himself as the truer campaign finance reformer in the race Thursday.
Thursday's assault on Gore seized on stories in the day's New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The stories questioned whether the Gore campaign has been fund-raising for its General Election Legal and Accounting Committee, or GELAC, through solicitations that make it appear that the money will be improperly spent on general activities. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer called the incident an "eerie repeat of what we saw in 1996." "What's particularly alarming about that is that the vice president has said that he learned from his '96 mistakes and he has a passion for campaign finance reform," Fleischer said. "But ... he may have a passion for finding new loopholes, just like in 1996."
Gore communications director Mark Fabiani disputed this, saying that the campaign was in "complete compliance with the FEC ... We've raised money solely to cover these legal and accounting expenses for the campaign. If we didn't have enough money in that account, we'd have to use campaign funds."
The GELAC was created to allow campaigns to raise money to pay for the lawyers and accountants they hire to file FEC reports. "But like many loopholes in Washington it's grown vastly larger than its original purpose was intended for," says Larry Makinson, director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
"The dollar amount the Gore campaign is raising is miles beyond what it would really cost to file those reports with the FEC on where the money comes from," Makinson says.
But even though Fleischer quoted Makinson in his press briefing Thursday, Makinson said that "Bush is doing the same thing, he's just not raising nearly as much as Gore is."
As Fleischer pointed out, as of Aug 31, Gore had raised $7.2 million for his GELAC while Bush had raised $4.4 million.
So is Bush's charge fair? Yes and no, says Makinson
"They're raising it, too, so to the extent that they're both raising GELAC money, no, it's not fair," Makinson says. "But to the extent that Gore is putting a lot more energy into it, it is. I mean, gimme a break -- $7 million to file your FEC reports? That's crazy ... Both sides have stretched this loophole way beyond any rationale explanation. But Gore, by raising twice as much, has stretched it twice as far."
But Fleischer, without any evidence, began calling into question what Gore's GELAC funds have been spent on, since a greater disparity in accounts exists in the amount the respective GELACs have spent on direct mail solicitations for the GELAC -- Gore has spent $578,361 while Bush has spent $68,192.
"That's eight times as much," Fleischer said. "Either he's expecting a lot of audits or he's found a new clever way to spend new general election money through his GELAC ... Either he's got the most overpaid people and the most expensive postage to raise GELAC money, or he has found a new clever way to offset general election expenditures so that it wouldn't count."
Fleischer offered no foundation for his insinuations, just suspicions. But Gore's spokesman said those suspicions were unfounded.
"All of the money reported under fundraising for the GELAC has gone toward the campaign's GELAC," Fabiani said. "We have expenses, and we've raised money solely to cover the expenses."
Arguments that the e-mail solicitation didn't mention the GELAC were irrelevant, Fabiani argued, since once a donor clicked onto the link cited, he or she would see that the money was for the GELAC. "The FEC says you can use the general campaign message in the solicitation," he said.
Still, the incident underscored for campaign finance reformers that they didn't have much of a horse in the race. "The most credible voices on campaign finance reform were John McCain and Bill Bradley and they've long since fallen by the wayside," Makinson says. "I don't think anyone thinks either of these guys is a champion on the issue."
Makinson allowed that Gore "is stronger on the record in what he's proposing" on the issue. But he sees Gore's recent effort to ban soft money in the presidential race somewhat skeptically. "Gore's challenge on soft money was probably given on the assumption that Bush wouldn't go along with it," he says.
Those despondent over the state of money in politics today can take heart in the fact that, according to Makinson, both major candidates have something in common. "It seems any time we come out with anything, either Bush or Gore -- and sometimes both of them -- try to use it against the other side," he said.