Big money's voice drowns out all others

By Hank Nichols, 1/2/2000

ne of the problems with soft money is the name, which is much too kind for something so malicious. Soft money sounds cuddly, but there is nothing cute about it and we ought to get rid of it while there is still time.

John McCain and Bill Bradley have made an issue of soft money this year. On Dec. 16 the two met in Claremont and shook hands in a symbolic pledge to fight soft money. Polls show that Americans have not warmed to the issue as much as McCain and Bradley might have liked, but why trust polls? The problem is we haven't been told much about soft money.

Soft money consists of unregulated political contributions to parties. The money cannot be used to support or oppose individual candidates, but it can be used to bring issues to the attention of voters, usually by radio, television and phone.

We've seen a few of these so-called issue ads on New Hampshire television in recent weeks. There is a curious one that is supposed to make us feel all warm and fuzzy about Orrin Hatch. The ad reaches new pinnacles of soft-focus photography as plain folks relate the ways in which Medicaid legislation supported by Hatch made a difference in their lives. Personal testimonies in political television ads are big this year.

Then, at the end of the spot, right where you would expect the message to be ''Vote for Hatch,'' you are instead invited to call a phone number and express your appreciation. This invitation to call instead of vote is the trademark of soft money ads. The ads are nothing more than campaign ads. We get the point: Vote for Hatch.

Senator Jim Jeffords is the recipient of a nearly identical ad broadcast in Vermont. The ads are paid for by the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care and American Health Care Association.

In another soft money ad on New Hampshire TV, McCain is singled out for some particularly harsh treatment by a group called Americans for Tax Reform. The ad portrays McCain as more Democrat than Republican. He is associated with Bill Clinton to the point of having Clinton morph into McCain near the end of the ad. McCain is said to be pro-labor and is identified as an enemy of the Republican Party. At the end of this ad you are invited to ''Call John McCain and tell him to leave the Republican Party alone.''

We may be breaking new ground here. Americans for Tax Reform gets much of its money from the Republican Party, soft money. In 1996, according to The New York Times, the Republican Party gave the group $4.6 million. The money was used to pay for ads intended to help Republican candidates. This year some of that Republican money is being used to fight a Republican candidate, one who is a threat to the group's choice, George W. Bush, and one who is a sworn enemy of soft money.

If soft money is ended, a lot of people are going to be out of work, and a lot of TV and radio stations are going to lose a money machine. It is no surprise that the attacks on McCain are so fierce and their message so blunt. McCain must be doing something right.

McCain is no newcomer to the war on soft money and special interests. He has had some illuminating experiences in recent years. Bill Moyers documented these in a recent PBS documentary, ''Free Speech - For Sale.'' In one instance, McCain sponsored the bill that seemed destined to be the defining piece of legislation in the government's attempts to come to terms with big tobacco. The bill was voted out of committee, 19-1 in favor. Then an amendment came up that the tobacco industry could not accept and it walked out on the talks with the Senate.

Tobacco went to work with issue ads that, instead of defending the industry, launched an assault on the bill and on big government. Perhaps you remember the Christmas in Washington ads of one year ago. Big taxes, big government and big spending were the message. The industry spent $40 million fighting the legislation. It was well spent. Propaganda from the ads started coming out of the mouths of senators on the floor of the Senate. The tobacco bill, once seen as a sure thing, was dead in the water.

There were ads attacking McCain, calling him a big-government liberal, much like the ads that have run in New Hampshire in recent weeks. Soft money was used to finance phone banks used to call people and get them fired up against the tobacco bill. Then the callers offered to put them right though to the senator's office.

McCain and Bob Dole stood up against the 1996 Telecommunications Act because, among other things, the act would give to broadcasters new channels on the digital spectrum. The potential of these new channels was immense and their value was considerable; in the digital world one channel can become many. These channels belong to the public and McCain and Dole said the right to use them should be auctioned, not given away. The sale could have brought $70 billion into the treasury. But the auction never happened. Dole and McCain were no match for the broadcast industry. The channels were given away.

In 1978 the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same free speech rights as people. But now, it turns out, people don't have the same free speech rights as corporations. We don't have that kind of money. As a result, big money sets the agenda for much of the political debate in this nation. It gets heard. The rest of us don't.

Hank Nichols is assistant professor of journalism and writing at New England College. He lives in Sutton.