Gore plan would create $7.1b fund for elections

Analysts cast doubt on his credibility

By Ann Scales, Globe Staff, 3/28/2000

ASHINGTON - It is sweeping and comprehensive. The problem is his credibility.

Those were the two conflicting reactions to Vice President Al Gore's new plan for driving special interest money out of politics.

Striving to inoculate himself against an issue that has become his Achilles' heel, Gore yesterday officially unveiled his extensive plan to overhaul the way presidential and congressional campaigns are financed.

His proposal would create a $7.1 billion endowment fund to pay for House and Senate races, require lobbyists to disclose to whom they give money and what meetings they attend, and force television broadcasters to give five minutes of free airtime a night to candidates for federal office in the last 30 days of the general election, as well as free and equal airtime for those candidates to respond to issue ads.

Those who agree with Gore about changing the system wondered aloud yesterday whether he can establish his ''credibility'' on the issue, especially since he once defended improper fund-raising calls he made from the White House by saying there was ''no controlling legal authority.''

''The challenge for him is to show how he's different from Bill Clinton, for example, who said the right things and articulated the right policies, but then did not spend any political capital on it as president,'' said Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, a campaign-finance reform group.

''The credibility thing is not a small issue,'' said Charles Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity, who called Gore a ''Jekyll and Hyde character'' on campaign finance. ''He would go a long way toward being more persuasive if he was more forthcoming about his own conduct'' in raising money to reelect himself and President Clinton in 1996, he said.

In announcing his plan, Gore said individuals and corporations who contribute to the nonpartisan ''Democracy Endowment'' would get a 100 percent tax deduction until the endowment is fully funded, which they expect to happen within seven years. Candidates could not take money from other sources.

He also promised that if elected president, the first legislation he would introduce would be the McCain-Feingold bill, named for Senators John S. McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Russell Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, to ban unlimited and unregulated ''soft money.''

''I know I may be an imperfect messenger for this cause, but the real wounds will be to our democracy itself unless and until we address this problem,'' Gore said at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

He said he had learned firsthand the perils of the current system and cared that his own integrity had been damaged by making improper fund-raising calls from the White House and appearing at a fund-raiser at a Buddhist Temple in California, where the participants had taken a vow of poverty. He said his commitment to changing campaign-finance laws was both ''personal and profound.'' ''I've got the scars to prove it,'' he added.

Republicans quickly pounced on Gore's proposal, labeling it an ''election-year conversion'' and ''a taxpayer-financed government takeover'' of political campaigns.

Gore's rival, Texas Governor George W. Bush, said, ''Any promise to reform our campaign-finance system will ring hollow unless it is grounded in credibility.''

Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the plan was a ''subterfuge'' by Gore to cover up fund-raising excesses by the Clinton-Gore ticket four years ago.

Bill Miller, the political director of the US Chamber of Commerce, which represents 190,000 American businesses, also threw cold water on the plan, suggesting that Gore's idea to provide the 100 percent deduction was no substitute for the current system.

''The tax-deductible hook, I don't believe, is sufficient to offset the importance of making contributions to those representatives who reflect your priorities,'' Miller said, adding that businesses might prefer giving to charitable organizations over political campaigns.

McCain, who along with former Democratic senator Bill Bradley thrust campaign-finance overhaul into the spotlight in this year's presidential primaries, also expressed skepticism.

''While parts of his proposal merit serious consideration, to convince a skeptical public that his efforts are sincere and not an election-year conversion, the vice president needs to back his words with meaningful, bipartisan action, as well as call for a complete and open investigation of 1996 campaign-finance irregularities,'' McCain said in a statement.

Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Democrat from Lowell who has pushed for campaign-finance overhaul in the House, said, ''There isn't anybody who is raising money today who has not had campaign finance problems. ... Nobody comes to this debate with clean hands.''