A Republican's bullying letter to business leaders might backfire

By David Nyhan, Globe Columnist, 09/03/99

he history of our politics traces periodic waves of corruption that peak, break, then recede in the wake of reform dictated after public outrage.

The last giant tsunami was the Watergate scandal. The 25th anniversary of the Nixon resignation focused on the burglary and subsequent coverup. But those two-bit antics were financed by a pervasive money raising operation that virtually extorted large sums from corporate America. Give or else was the Nixon threat; we'll regulate you, tax you, prosecute you, hound you with IRS, FBI, and antitrust investigations. We'll tap your phones, open your mail, knuckle your subordinates. We have the power, and we will use it unless you fork over.

It was the excesses and brainless zealotry of CREEP - the Committee to Re-elect the President - that brought Nixon down. There were no heroes in the corporate world to come forward and say, ''Enough!'' The executives whose names and companies were dragged through the mud never had the guts to take on Nixon's thuggish regime. They left the hollering to the antiwar marchers and the civil rights people.

We are again in the wave-building stage of a gathering storm of political corruption involving soft money and extortion of business executives via loopholes in campaign finance laws. Virtually every surprising development in the politics of the last decade stems at least in part from public revulsion at a system where incumbent politicians thrive with impunity because they can raise money as easily as if armed with a mask and a gun.

Ross Perot's 19 percent of the '92 vote drew upon disillusionment. Jesse Ventura proved that an ex-wrestler can become governor and cavort with barely clad ladies because he's seen as more genuine than suit-and-tie pols who sell out for campaign cash. The successes this year of Bill Bradley and Senator John McCain in the presidential races are based in large part on their stand for campaign finance reform.

The apathy and cynicism so pronounced among the young, the turnout trends that will have fewer than 50 percent of those eligible bothering to vote, and the emergence of a flock of fundamentalist candidates decrying political immorality are all nourished by the manure of the current system. But there are unmistakeable forces eroding the defenses of the status quo politicians.

And a fresh one popped up last week with an unusual letter addressed to a very establishment and nonpartisan group of executives, the Committee for Economic Development, from Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky. In what seems like a crude threat out of the Nixon-era, McConnell, chief fund-raiser for GOP senators, asked 10 trustees of the committee to sever their ties with the campaign finance reform coalition.

''I was astonished,'' he began, that a businessman of your prominence would support an ''all-out campaign to eviscerate private-sector participation in politics.'' Professing ''great concern,'' he falsely claimed that reforms would ''ban corporate political activism and render the Republican Party powerless to defend pro-business candidates from negative TV attacks by labor unions, trial lawyers, and radical environmentalists.''

The New York Times said the CED roster includes firms like GM, Xerox, Merck, and Sara Lee Corp., many of which ''have significant issues pending before Congress.'' There's the implied threat: Stop trying to deprive us of our boodle or we'll make your corporation's life miserable on Capitol Hill.

As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, McConnell is acutely aware that his party's control of both Senate and House is predicated to no small degree on the GOP's traditional advantage in heisting campaign contributions from business executives, whereas labor unions traditionally give more to Democratic candidates.

Under pressure from voters and the media, slim majorities in both House and Senate have voted tentatively to embrace substantial curbs on soft money and some other reforms. But the Republican leaders have used devious tricks and strategems to prevent passage of the soft money ban. It may take further outrages beyond McConnell's threatening letter to stir business leaders to demand an end to such tacit corruption.

Perhaps the wave of reform will crest when a Colombian cartel operator gets caught handing over millions to a US politician, as happened with the previous president of Colombia. Right now the GOP leadership is huddling behind McConnell's braggadocio. It would help immensely if more prominent business leaders signed on with Committee for Economic Development, saying they're fed up and they're not going to take it anymore. There's only one way to deal with a bully, and that's to beat the stuffing out of him with whatever means at hand.

Until more business leaders are convinced they'll get a fairer deal from a clean and open system than from the back-door baksheesh at present, they're like the third-grader robbed of his lunch money every day: Until you stand up to the bully, you can expect to have your pocket picked with impunity.

David Nyhan is a Globe columnist.