Bradley, McCain unite on campaign finance

By Jill Zuckman, Globe Staff, 12/17/99

LAREMONT, N.H. -- Meeting at the site of a famous but ultimately fruitless political agreement, Bill Bradley and John McCain yesterday shook hands on a promise they hope will set them apart from the political pack: A ban on unregulated soft money in their presidential campaigns.

''We believe that money is eating away at the core of our democracy like acid eats away at cloth and it's time for us to do something about it,'' said Bradley, the former Democratic senator from New Jersey.

The unusual cross-party alliance between Democrat Bradley and Republican McCain was designed to highlight both candidates' commitment to change the way campaigns are financed. But it also served to spotlight their willingness to go against the grain - displaying an independent streak that may appeal to the crucial constituency of independent voters in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. Opinion polls suggest that both men are admired by many independents, who are free, under state law, to vote in either party primary.

Yesterday's handshake took place in the backyard of the Earl Bourden Senior Center, on the same spot where President Clinton and former Speaker Newt Gingrich came together June 11, 1995, and agreed to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to examine campaign finance laws. The commission never materialized and almost five years later, the law remains unchanged.

This time, however, the temperature in this crumbling old mill town was in the 30s, both men were wearing heavy wool coats, and their breath was visible in the air. With the 2000 presidential race in full motion, McCain and Bradley took turns lambasting the other's rival, as well as answering questions from about 50 voters. The event was hosted by Ted Koppel and aired last night on ABC's ''Nightline.''

McCain mocked Vice President Al Gore for raising money for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign in a Buddhist temple.

''In case you missed it,'' McCain said of the temple event, ''he said he didn't know where he was. ... Perhaps the odor of incense and all those folks in saffron robes might have given him a clue.''

The Arizona senator also derided Gore for defending the 1996 fund-raising calls he placed from his office with the repeated assertion that there was no ''no controlling legal authority'' that banned the practice.

''I want to tell the vice president and everyone else, when I am president, there will be a controlling legal authority,'' McCain said.

Bush opposed bans on soft money donations, saying that unless union donations to campaigns are also controlled, GOP candidates will find themselves at a disadvantage.

Bradley focused on McCain's lead rival, Texas Governor George W. Bush, who has raised about $70 million and shunned federal matching funds in his bid for the Republican nomination for president.

''I personally think the governor of Texas will demonstrate you can raise too much money in politics,'' Bradley said.

Bradley said he might have to accept soft money if he winds up running against Bush. But if Bradley and McCain are the nominees, each said they would forswear those funds.

Soft money donations to the national political parties were originally used for party-building activities and get-out-the-vote efforts. Now, unlimited and unregulated donations from corporations, unions, and individuals to the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee are frequently used for issue-advocacy ads to influence congressional and presidential elections.

McCain and Bradley agree that soft money should be banned. And they favor free television time for federal candidates. But they differ on one crucial aspect of campaign reform. Bradley has called for public financing of congressional elections. McCain says he does not want his tax dollars being used to support candidates with whom he disagrees.

There is considerable controversy over the need to overhaul the way campaigns are financed. Legislation has been stalled repeatedly in the Congress. And many liberal and conservative advocacy groups, such as National Right to Life and the American Civil Liberties Union, have vigorously fought the measure sponsored by McCain and Senator Russell Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, contending that it is an unconstitutional limitation on their free speech right to broadcast their point of view.

Roger Stenson, executive director of New Hampshire Citizens for Life, told McCain that his bill would make it illegal for citizens' groups to even mention the name of a member of Congress in the two months prior to any election.

''How do you justify, Senator McCain, oppressing the free speech rights of organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or even my own organization, Citizens For Life?'' asked Stenson.

''That's a very clever misrepresentation of my position,'' replied McCain, who then demanded Stenson pay attention to his explanation. McCain said he is trying to eliminate undisclosed and unaccounted money from the political process. He told Stenson that he can personally contribute money to a campaign, as long as he is identified as a donor.

''This does not deprive your ability to exercise free speech,'' said McCain. ''That's a totally false mischaracterization of the situation.''

Asked if they would use campaign finance reform as a litmus test to appoint Supreme Court justices, McCain said he does not believe in litmus tests, and Bradley said he would select judges based on competence.

While yesterday's media event allowed McCain and Bradley to portray themselves as outsiders fighting against powerful, entrenched opponents, both have long been skillful fund-raisers operating within the system they now decry.

McCain raises money from people and companies with business before the Senate Commerce Committee, which he chairs. And Bradley was considered a master fund-raiser in the Senate. This year, he has defied expectations with his success in presidential fund-raising, considering that his opponent is the sitting vice president who enjoys the support of many party leaders and traditional interest groups.

When asked if either of them had been influenced by the money that came their way in donations, one said yes, the other, no.

''I believe there have been times when I believe I have been influenced because the big donor buys access to my office and we all know that access buys influence,'' McCain said. ''That taints all of us. It taints me.''

Bradley, on the other hand, said he had never made a decision based on a political donation.

Meanwhile, yesterday's event prompted Gore and Bush, the national front-runners, to take notice. Gore bought a full-page ad in the Claremont Eagle Times titled ''My pledge to you.''

It said campaign finance reform would be at the top of his agenda if elected. It also said Gore would not use soft money - assuming his Republican opponent agrees - in the general election. In a minor swipe at Bradley, the ad asked voters to ''look beyond the rhetoric'' of the candidates to their actual records.

''John McCain has shown real courage in taking on his own party and working for real reform,'' Gore said in the advertisement. His omission of similar praise for Bradley left the impression that he doesn't think his own opponent has been as diligent.

But when asked about McCain's harsh comments about his fund-raising visit to the Buddhist temple, Gore said from Tennessee that he has acknowledged his mistake. ''The fact is, a lot of candidates have found that the current system creates all kinds of problems,'' Gore said, calling for enactment of the McCain-Feingold bill and full public financing of federal elections.

Bush, who was also campaigning in Tennessee yesterday, said that he would ban soft money contributions from corporations and labor unions, but not individuals. He also complained that McCain's plan would allow unions to elect liberal Democrats at the expense of Republicans. McCain, however, supports a ''paycheck protection'' plan to require union members to sign a form before their dues could be used for political purposes.