Campaigns without limits

By Thomas Oliphant, Globe Columnist, 07/27/99

WASHINGTON -- Elizabeth Drew, analyst and seer extraordinary, saw it all coming months before George W. Bush did it. What she saw on the money politics front is interestingly ignored by the latest presidential candidate-reformer to step forward, former senator Bill Bradley.

In her latest essential volume, ''The Corruption of American Politics,'' Drew observes correctly that in the age of unlimited ''soft'' money, any notion of limits on financial contributions to candidates is absurd. And she warns that the next step will be a final assault on the last fortress of post-Watergate federal oversight - limits on spending, overall and in individual states, during the primary season in exchange for matching funds.

Drew reported, again correctly, that more than one candidate was seriously considering passing up the federal dough in order to be able to spend as much money as his pals could collect in increments up to $1,000.

Then she accurately analyzed the meaning of such a step well before President-in-waiting Bush took it: ''That would complete the cycle of going back to the Watergate days and before - when there were no limits at all.''

The point here is not that there is anything corrupt or even questionable about Bush's astonishing pile of money. The point is that limits are the window that keeps corruption in the broadest sense out.

Open that window and a lot can come in besides dirty money and unscrupulous candidacies. For starters, a limitless campaign can destroy any remaining pretense that the early-voting states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Arizona, South Carolina) function as equal opportunities for a barely funded candidacy to break through.

For evidence, one need look no further on the Republican side than the fight between one fellow spending unlimited zillions of his own cash (Steve Forbes) and another one (Bush) now able to shovel zillions of other peoples' at relatively tiny TV markets.

But there's more. Who knows if money is the root of it all (Drew is neutral), but money is all around the myriad of evils that have turned so many would-be voters away from politics - virulent partisanship, poll-driven politicians, negative campaigning, full-time warfare that crowds out time for old-fashioned governance, and the decline of legislative cultures that used to accommodate and soften ideological clashes in the interest of progress.

What makes her book all you have to read - as H.L. Mencken's Carnival of Bunkum begins even earlier this time - is its reflective tracing of the gradual unraveling of all that the quixotic among us thought had been achieved in the wake of Watergate.

It is often forgotten, but the changes worked rather well until the mid-1980s. That was when a loophole opened by the Federal Elections Commission, and first noticed by Drew nearly 20 years ago, was turned into a canyon as huge, unregulated gobs of cash began to flow into federal campaigns via the political parties. Today, the only difference between hard and soft money is that the former is limited in individual amount and the latter is not and is an avenue for influence to corporations, unions, and rich people.

In a speech here last week - understandably overshadowed by the tragedy off Martha's Vineyard - Bradley joined the reformers' ranks in his uphill race against Vice President Al Gore. A great deal of what he had to say was helpful, and Gore made a tactical goof in starting a sniping match by surrogates over who was sincere or had a better record on the issue.

Adopting a variation on change ideas pushed earlier in the decade, Bradley urged a 2-1 federal match for gifts up to $250, public financing of general elections (including for Congress), and free TV time via the Federal Communications Commission for participating candidates.

And all this would be in the context of a flat ban on soft money, the key idea in the reform legislation that is headed for its annual collision with the stone wall of Congress. To buttress his point, Bradley went the extra step of offering to forgo soft money in next year's general election if he is the Democratic nominee provided the GOP nominee does the same (fat chance).

But Bradley was silent on the spending loophole for ''hard'' money that Bush has now burst through by opting out of the matching funds system, setting a huge precedent. One reason involves concerns about the constitutionality of spending limits under Supreme Court decisions going back to 1976, though another reason to study Drew's book is its detailed exploration of the actual content of those decisions, which leave more room for change than most realize.

Having been bold in his vision of a less corrupting system, Bradley should have confronted Bush's choice.

The point is not that Bradley's ideas are headed inexorably toward enactment in time for the next election. Obviously, they are not. Rather, the point is that this kind of advocacy establishes fresh values in the national debate, values well within the bounds of current public opinion. By contrast, Bradley met that test well recently in advocating a ban on cheap handguns. And it is the promotion and election of people pushing the right values that necessarily precedes action.

As it is, I think it is obvious that we are headed toward an even uglier, more profligate campaign season. As Elizabeth Drew shows, when the window is wide open, a great deal more than just money comes pouring in.

Thomas Oliphant is a Globe columnist.