Debating Campaign Finance Reform
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GWEN IFILL: Now, for a closer look at what lies ahead for campaign finance reform, we’re joined by the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. David, we’ve been through this before, this passed the House in 1998, 1999, passed the Senate a couple month ago. What’s different about it this time around?
DAVID BROOKS: Democrats are backing away. I am reminded, there was a line I learned in Britain, they jump ship so fast the rats were left gaping and applauding, and that’s how fast some of them have jumped from the campaign finance reform ship. GWEN IFILL: Because…
DAVID BROOKS: Because it might pass and they may have to live in the world. The difference this time is that the Senate has passed it and in the Senate the debate was like Sunday school, there was the golden sword of campaign finance against the evil devil of soft money. But a lot of these Democrats and Republicans are saying how will my life be different. And the difference for House members is that unlike Senators they have a tough time getting media coverage. So they’re saying soft money is my friend. Soft money helps me promote myself. Soft money helps me get out the vote. One of the Hill staffers told me the other day, in Chris Shays’ district they all read the New York Times, but I need soft money to get out my message and I’m scared of losing that.
GWEN IFILL: And the New York Times, of course, editorial page, has been very much in favor of the Says-Meehan bill. E. J., what’s your take? What’s the political alchemy going on here?
E. J. DIONNE: Well, I agree with David that the fact that this bill could become law has made a lot of people in the House take it very seriously and some people are backing away. The question is, how many people are backing away. This has so many moving parts, that no smart person I talked to on this today has any idea how it going to come out. You have the black caucus, which is split, you have people like John Lewis, Harold Ford, Jr., all members of the caucus who say look we don’t benefit from our soft money, our constituents don’t give soft money.
They’re working to keep those votes in favor of campaign finance as they can. Moderate Republicans are very much in play on this, there are a lot of Republicans who voted for this the last time around again, when it didn’t have a chance at becoming law, and Senator McCain campaigned for a number of these Republicans and is saying to them, look, when I campaigned for you, you said you were for campaign reform. How can you now back away from this?
GWEN IFILL: He’s not just saying that, he’s writing them letters, and I think Dennis Hastert the House Speaker, called him a bully for doing that.
E. J. DIONNE: Right. It was shocking that McCain was trying to get votes for his bill. You assume the Republican leadership sends flowers and chocolates and sweet notes to their members to get them to vote for the bill. I think it’s going to be different for different Republicans; I mean, if you take two freshman Republicans – Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia – she’s in a Democratic district; she won with 49 percent of the vote. I think she’s going to be very reluctant to have John McCain on her back in her election.
He also campaigned for Mike Rogers in Michigan. Rogers won a close race, but the Republicans controlled redistricting and, guess what, he’s got a much easier district this time and he’s saying he doesn’t feel obligated to vote with McCain. So you have all these tensions. Then you’ve got some pragmatic Democrats who say, well, gee, the Republicans are better at raising hard money, we’re pretty good at raising soft money, why should we give this up. Gephardt, the Democratic leader, has really been working very hard, he’s fallen into line behind Shays-Meehan so, this is a real test for him.
GWEN IFILL: Does this turn about — on the way the Democrats raise money versus the way Republicans raise money?
DAVID BROOKS: I’d have to say if you want it short hand — this bill will make it harder for Democrat to get elected because they would face, the Republicans have a big hard money advantage.
GWEN IFILL: Meaning? It never hurts to explain again what the difference is.
DAVID BROOKS: If soft money were eliminated whether Republicans and Democrats have parity, then it would be a hard money world. In the hard money world, the Republicans just have a lot more money because they are much better at raising small amounts of money from direct mail and other things. But once elected, I think Democrats would find it easier to pass legislation, because most of the legislation that’s blocked is blocked by special interest soft money. So Democrats face these cross currents, and it’s really tearing them apart and Republicans.
GWEN IFILL: The Democrats are supposed to be very tied, very closely generally to labor unions who aren’t necessarily in favor of Shays-Meehan?
DAVID BROOKS: Right, all the unions are against it because they donate soft money. A lot of the associations, ACLU, the NRA on the right. are against it. One of the things this bill does – and again we’re getting down into the practical effects of it, not the moral effects of money — is that it weakens the parties. The parties are like Hollywood studios who funnel all this soft money into projects they like. Without that soft money, the parties are weaker, and the associations and the unions and the industry groups that feed those parties the soft money are weaker, and the people who are stronger are us in the media.
GWEN IFILL: Does Bob Ney’s bill – is it in a good position to actually pass or defeat the Shays-Meehan?
E. J. DIONNE: If you talk to Shays and Meehan, they are less worried about Ney’s bill passing than they are about some amendments that might shake some Democrats loose from the bill. For example, the current bill as written limits contributions to House raises to $1,000. Some want to raise to it $2,000. Some members say they might fall off the bill if that limit goes up. There’s another provision that would prohibit resident aliens, people who are here in the United States but aren’t citizens yet, from giving money to campaigns. If that amendment passes, a lot of the Hispanic caucus says they’ll jump up.
But I want to disagree with David on a couple of points. One, it is true that unions are not crazy about this. On the other hand, there are a lot of people in union leadership who say look, we’re outspent by business ten to one, we can’t win in this game, so they’ve been pressuring their unions to say, now, this is better for us, the reform is better for us than the current system. And the other question about whether or not this strengthens parties, in a lot of ways the parties are just a pass-through; they become a kind of shell, and really it’s the candidates themselves who raise the money directly, can get around the existing limits and say give it to the soft money account in the party. It’s not clear if the party’s are any stronger now that we have soft money than they were 10 or 15 years ago. I think you can make a good case that they’re weaker.
GWEN IFILL: If the Bob Ney alternative passes, which has the higher contribution limits than Shays-Meehan, is this dead?
DAVID BROOKS: In my view it’s dead. The crucial issue would be what used to be called Snowe-Jeffords, which says 60 days before an election, a special interest group could not run ads targeting a candidate. That is in the Senate bill, that is not in the Ney bill. There is no compromise. Either you have it or you don’t. So I think you have irreconcilable differences, big divorce. It’s interesting — Feingold and McCain said today if this loses, they’re out of the campaign finance reform business, they did their best, they’re out.
GWEN IFILL: What happens if it passes and ends up on the President’s desk, what does President Bush do?
E. J. DIONNE: You mean, if it’s the Shays-Meehan-McCain Senate bill comes to the President’s desk.
GWEN IFILL: If the Shays-Meehan, McCain Senate bill…
E. J. DIONNE: The first thing is I don’t think anybody knows, and I think some of it is how much President Bush willing to risk to fight for John McCain. He clearly doesn’t like Feingold-Shays Meehan as written. It doesn’t go with anything he said during the campaign. However if he vetoes this, he gives John McCain yet another reason to club him very hard and perhaps even to go off the reservation. There’s been a lot of speculation McCain wants to run as an independent, this would be a perfect excuse for McCain if he wants the excuse.
GWEN IFILL: Hasn’t the President been sending frantic signals that he might sign this bill?
DAVID BROOKS: I think he’s said he’d sign it. You know, it’s interesting and indicative of Bush. He sent a letter when this whole process started saying I’ve got four principles of campaign finance reform. McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan has none of those four. And yet he’s willing to sign it. He’s not a triangulator the way Bush was. He’s a neck snapper.
GWEN IFILL: The way Clinton was.
DAVID BROOKS: The way Clinton was. I’m going to get ridden out of my magazine. Once he decides he’s going to be ruthlessly pragmatic on an issue, he can do 180 degrees and we’re all left spinning. But I think he’d probably sign it.
GWEN IFILL: We’ll all be watching of course tomorrow for the vote. Thank you both very much.