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Why McCain's plan to target issue ads is vital to campaign finance reform.

Published March 17, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

As the forces trying to derail the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill continue to mass at the border, a just-released study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice, with the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts, makes it clear why one key component of the legislation -- the restricting of so-called issue ads -- is so desperately needed.

A team of researchers under the guidance of professor Kenneth Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin "reviewed, quantified and coded" the nearly 1 million television campaign ads run by federal candidates, political parties and interest groups during the 2000 campaign. (And you thought you were sick of them.)

According to the study, "under the guise that they are paying for ads aimed at informing the public on a policy issue, non-party groups sponsored at least $100 million of electioneering issue ads in the 2000 campaign without having to disclose their funding sources, where they aired ads or how much they spent."

If McCain-Feingold were the law of the land, 99.5 percent of independent expenditure ads run in the last 60 days of Election 2000 would have had to come clean about who was behind them, as they were clearly aimed at electing specific candidates and not at illuminating ideas and issues.

The bill would also substantially reduce the toxicity of the political environment -- the study demonstrates that the most negative ads were run by groups hiding behind sham names and committees. People are a lot keener to throw mud when they can do it anonymously. Seventy-two percent of interest-group ads were attack ads, while the vast majority of ads paid for by candidates were used to puff up their images.

Given the freedom from accountability such stealth ad campaigns provide, it's not surprising that some very strange bedfellows have united to stop a bill that would make it harder for them to continue their assault on our democracy -- all the while claiming, of course, that they're defending the First Amendment.

The National Rifle Association, the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce held a press conference earlier this month, along with the ACLU, to attack McCain-Feingold.

The AFL-CIO was not present, but it was there in spirit: "It's an attempt by incumbents," said AFL-CIO lawyer Laurence Gold of the issue-ad provision, "to silence individual groups that criticize them or put pressure on them to vote on certain matters." But if McCain-Feingold were really about protecting incumbents, it would have passed a long time ago.

The Christian Coalition went even further, fretting that the bill "could effectively put our voter education and issue advocacy activities at serious risk." To say nothing of its ability to "educate" us ignorant voters about which candidate God is endorsing in any given race.

Of course, most of the special interests playing the issue-ad game were not at the press conference. They prefer to remain in the shadows. Aretino Industries, for example, a pro-Bush group in Texas, refused to disclose both the source of its money and the names of those involved when it remade the grandmother of all inflammatory attack spots, the "Daisy" ad that painted Barry Goldwater as a nut case likely to lead us into nuclear war.

The Aretino version accused the Clinton-Gore administration of selling America's security "to Communist Red China in exchange for campaign contributions." It takes a lot of chutzpah to denounce the unhealthy influence of campaign contributions at the exact moment you are eviscerating the spirit of our campaign laws.

The purveyors of political ads seem to lack an appreciation of irony. Out of all the ads the study looked at, only 1.3 percent were deemed humorous. When it came to selling candidates, comedy was clearly not king.

But, apparently, game shows were. Other than local news programs, the two shows attracting the most political advertising were "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy." About 16,580 spots -- at a cost of more than $22 million -- were aimed at "Wheel" watchers, while 14,880 ran during "Jeopardy."

Go figure: Vanna White and Alex Trebek, kingmakers. Who knew? Probably just part of the "voter education mission" that these anonymous, democracy-loving groups care so much about.

And speaking of irony, "special interests" was the second most common term of abuse leveled by the special interests that put on these attack ads, preceded by "dishonest" or "corrupt" and followed by "loves taxes," "hypocrite" and those ever-popular put-downs, "Friend of Gingrich" and "Friend of Bill."

The study tells us that "Republicans and Democrats battled to a standoff in the television air wars" -- with more than $236 million spent on each side. Yet there seems to be no incentive for détente. Perhaps it's because the danger we face is not the mutually assured obliteration of the two parties but the destruction of our democracy.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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