TOPICS > Politics

Political Jousting

April 24, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: After last fall’s election the two major political parties chose new chairmen, both men Washington outsiders from Colorado. They were both asked to run their national committees and to prepare their parties to win the next election. But for both men the new jobs have involved an unusual amount of attention to the last campaign–specifically how their respective parties raised money for that effort. The chairmen join us now. Jim Nicholson, head of the Republican National Committee, is a Denver area homebuilder and land developer. He also served as the Republican National Committeeman from Colorado. Roy Romer, head of the Democratic National Committee, is in his third term as governor of Colorado. Welcome, both of you. Governor, is there too much money in politics today?

GOV. ROY ROMER, Chairman, Democratic National Committee: There absolutely is, but first I want to say hello to Jim. Jim, I’m here working in Colorado, keeping the economy healthy so the success of your company can afford to have you back there. I just want to say to that personally.

JIM NICHOLSON, Chairman, Republican National Committee: I appreciate it, Roy.

GOV. ROY ROMER: Now, let me get to the question.

MARGARET WARNER: Glad you all are friends.

GOV. ROY ROMER: Yeah, we are friends. And I hope that not only can we be friends, but I hope we can raise the dialogue in this debate between parties above just charge and counter-charge, and what’s good for the American people. But let me get to your question. I do believe there’s too much money in politics. I think that we have gotten money so important that the individual voter is really turned off by the system. I think we need to find a way to get TV at lesser cost, and even free for candidates. We need to find a way to have ideas and values, really make the difference in elections, rather than who can buy the most free speech with how much money you raise.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, too much money–

JIM NICHOLSON: Well, there are a lot of parts to that question, Margaret. For example, we spend less in this country in politics every year that we do on yogurt, and competing brands of yogurt use money and television to get out their brand names and what the money that goes into politics is far more important than yogurt. It’s about ideas, and it’s about a way of life, a differing ideology for people in America. So whether we spend too much money or not, I think that’s up for each citizen to decide, but I can tell you in the Republican Party our average donation is less than $50. And I think, by the way, in the Democratic Party it’s much higher than that. And I’d be real interested to know what it is, Roy, but I think it’s much higher than that.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Governor, what about that–the point that Mr. Nicholson just made, that Newt Gingrich has made, that if you think about advertising dog food or yogurt, that we do spend more than we spend on politics, and there’s nothing wrong with it?

GOV. ROY ROMER: That’s really a false argument. Let’s really bring it down to a very specific circumstance. I ran for governor last time. My opponent put $4 million in his own money on the table. I had to raise three and a half million dollars. That’s much too much for a state like this. When you put public officials into the pressure of having to raise that much money, they can’t help but be influenced by the kind of money they raise. Now I will just ask Jim Nicholson and the Republican Party to join with us in the McCain-Feingold bill or any other to put reasonable limits on this. I think the American people really want to find a way to not let people just buy elections. Let me tell you–it is wrong for these political parties and these people who serve in public office to spend as much time as they do having to raise money. We ought to have them attending to the people’s business.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Nicholson, what about that point, when it takes the average Senate candidate $4.5 million to run for the Senate, is there any seemly way to raise that money? Is there any way to raise that money that doesn’t look to the public as if someone’s buying access or influence?

JIM NICHOLSON: The first thing I’d like to remind you and the people is that this whole dialogue about public financing of political campaigns and campaign reform is driven by the fact that the Democrats are embroiled in a major scandal. There is law on this. And there are limits. There have been limits since 1974. But they have not abided by the law. And that–that is what is driving this whole attenuated atmosphere about this. And I believe that there are people out there who will say that we have enough disclosure. There are others that say perhaps we need more disclosure, maybe we need more rapid disclosure. But to talk about some kind of a quarantine on an amount that a person can spend to express their ideas, whether they’re a candidate or a supporter of a candidate, I think violates the Constitution in this country.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you about one of this element of this controversy, and I don’t want to get into finger pointing over it, just to point out that the big controversy seems to be over the soft money, so called soft money that was given to your respective political parties in the last campaign. These are essentially unlimited. And I’ll start with you, Jim Nicholson. Could you live without soft money?

JIM NICHOLSON: Well, when you talk about limiting soft money, you’re talking about limiting the right of a citizen or a corporation to express themselves in politics.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m asking about you at the party–as a party, will the RNC have trouble operating? How would it affect you if for whatever reason the law was no big soft money contributions?

JIM NICHOLSON: Well, I think there would be major impacts on, on all parties and all organizations that want to express themselves as advocacy or issue-oriented organizations, and it would give an undue advantage to other organizations or people. Let’s say, for example, Margaret, that you’re a celebrity. And you have instant prominence and you want to speak out on an issue you would be hurt. You would have a forum. You’re not talking about money there. I have a dentist in Denver who is a very ardent Republican, an articulate fellow, and he speaks out, but no one–no one listens to him. No one hears him. And so you have to be very careful, I think, when we talk about putting any limits on contributions like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Governor, how do you feel about limiting soft money, or eliminating it as a category?

GOV. ROY ROMER: Oh, I think it ought to be eliminated. I think we ought to ban soft money, and as I and my partner, Steve Grossman, the co-chair of the Democratic Party, we offered to join Nicholson, let’s go together right now, both political parties, and just ban soft money, even before they do this in Congress, but let me say, Margaret, the real tragedy of this debate is it diverges from the people’s business. The people’s business in Congress is just not getting done. I have never really seen a period of time in which we have as little done as we have in this Congress. And I would like to get this debate not just upon how we raise money but why we’re here as political parties. For example, I think the average American person wants this Congress to address the needs of children getting health care, address the needs of the children becoming educated, find a way that we can accelerate the clean-up of waste dumps. Now, you see Congress has been in session only 27 days and been out of session about 57 days. They’ve worked one day for every two days they’ve been there. I would like to ask Jim Nicholson, since it’s his party in control, to see if we can get this Congress to pay attention to the people’s business. It’s a do-nothing Republican Congress.

JIM NICHOLSON: Well, Roy, I’m back here working every day, and I tell you they’re working hard. You probably saw a little while ago the debate on the chemical weapons treaty. We have a very solid agenda. We’re seeking to get tax cuts for the overtaxed American family. We’re trying to get a balanced budget. We’re trying to get educational resources driven down to the local level where they belong, and do something about crime in this country. And what it–traditionally in this country the chief executive proposes and the Congress disposes. They legislate. They enable, and we’re not getting leadership out of the White House.

MARGARET WARNER: Actually, Governor, let me just ask you that point, because there are some liberal activists who also feel that the President isn’t giving a sweeping agenda either. Do you have–

GOV. ROY ROMER: Well, let me be very specific, Margaret. The President put a budget on the table. That’s the key document as to what’s going to happen in policy. The Republicans have an obligation to put their own budget on by April 15th. They failed to do that. They can’t get together and put a budget on the table. Let me tell you what’s at stake here. We need to find a way to get health care for children that are not covered. We need to find a way to get on with the education of America’s children. Now the people are saying, Congress, do something, let’s get at the people’s business. And I tell you the ball is in their court. The President has put a budget on the table. The Republicans, by law, are supposed to have a budget of their own by April 15th. They haven’t done it. Jim, just let me ask you specifically, why haven’t they put their budget on the table, can you not get ’em together?

MARGARET WARNER: Can I interrupt this, because we’re about to run out of time, and I want to ask you both a question that’s more personal. Starting with you, Jim Nicholson, as not a Washington stranger but as an outsider, how do you find this town, how do you find the political climate here?

JIM NICHOLSON: Well, it’s a stimulating, fascinating place to be. It’s an idea in a town of ideas, there’s a great amount of motion here. There’s a tremendous amount of–of controversy and advocacy, and it’s a fascinating place to be.

MARGARET WARNER: Governor, briefly.

GOV. ROY ROMER: Well, I think it is a fascinating place, but let me tell you, people within the beltway need to hear from America. America is really impatient to get on with their lives, and they want that–they want that government to work for them, and I just think they don’t want two political parties doing charge and counter-charge. I hope over a period of time Mr. Nicholson, myself, and Mr. Grossman can elevate this debate so that political parties are really saying to the American people this is what your business ought to be, not political debate.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Governor, and thank you, Mr. Nicholson, very much.