Politics & Policy

Soft Thinking On Soft Money

Understanding Bill Kristol.

What the hell is Bill Kristol thinking?

That’s what I used to think (see “The Irony of Bill Kristol“) when I read articles like the one I read Wednesday in the New York Times written by The Weekly Standard editor and Jeffery Bell, formerly of the Gary Bauer campaign. Now, it is required when discussing people in Washington who are more powerful, influential, and smarter than you to say something along the lines of, “I like and respect Bill Kristol” before you criticize him. Well, just because that’s a requirement doesn’t mean it’s not true. I do like and respect Kristol. But, jeez.

In their New York Times op-ed, Kristol and Bell argue that Republicans should give up their opposition to soft-money bans because soft money helps Democrats more than Republicans these days. Their case in point is the Clinton–Lazio Senate race. Recently, Rep. Lazio issued a now-famous challenge to Hillary Clinton to refuse all soft money. Soft money, for those smart enough to be incredibly uninterested in campaign-finance issues, is the cash given directly to political parties and organizations to help candidates win elections.

Mrs. Clinton has had a strong advantage in soft money. You see, gitchy-goo West Coast liberals have been sacrificing their spa money and forgoing electrolysis for their gardeners (looking at hairy backs through the bay windows can be so stressful) in order to donate as much money as possible to various pro-Hillary causes. After all, Hollywood needs a Senator from New York.

With such cash, the New York Senate 2000 Committee — a Democratic party front group — was essentially spending a million bucks a week on “issue ads” for Hillary. Meanwhile, Lazio has a dramatic advantage in hard money, i.e., cash contributed directly to the Lazio campaign.

“So much for Republicans’ belief that soft money is their friend,” write Kristol and Bell. You see, the way they figure it, soft money is good for Democrats and not so good for Republicans these days. Therefore Republicans should give it up. “Isn’t it in Republicans’ interest to revive the hard-money system by increasing individual limits and curbing the soft-money system?” they ask rhetorically. They then go on to answer their own question by hailing the success of McCain’s use of campaign-finance reform during the early primaries (Lazio’s staff has no shortage of ex-McCain people).

Because campaign reform has “surprising political salience” Kristol and Bell write, “Conservatives should welcome this fact, since they have no stake in the current system.”

What an odd flowering of Republican cynicism (and exaggeration) on the pages of the New York Times op-ed page. Nowhere in the essay do the authors actually address the fanciful idea that Republican opposition to what they call “reform” might actually be based on principle. It’s as if principle does not, should not, and cannot enter into such calculations. All of those ornate arguments conservatives have made about how soft-money bans muzzle political speech? Feh! Meaningless dreck. We only meant that when it was to our benefit. If the system doesn’t work for the Republicans anymore, then change the system.

Indeed, one wonders, why stop there? Tax cuts don’t work in the polls? Well, all that principle talk was nothing but spin anyway. Dump that too. Abortion? Gay marriage? The designated-hitter rule? Sure, as long as these things don’t work for the GOP — or what the authors want the GOP to be (don’t get me started on that) — dump away.

Now, I am being a little unfair. What Kristol and Bell would probably say is that this particular op-ed was intended to appeal to self-interest and not to principle. They’ve made their principled case for campaign-finance reform elsewhere (though I don’t recall where) and this is an attempt to persuade realists in the party that they can abandon the practice without being penalized.

Fine, fine. That’s an easily convenient case to make when you have access to the New York Times op-ed page. But for reasons too long to go into here, Kristol is one of the only conservatives in America who has access to those pages (and like most conservatives on such pages, he’s usually welcome only when he sticks it to Republicans).

Under the system he advocates, those without access to the Times are left out in the cold in political campaigns. Or more importantly, those who cannot persuade the Times to be fair in their coverage of Christians, pro-lifers, opponents of gay scout leaders, opponents of hate-crimes legislation, opponents of anything Brent Staples and Frank Rich think is a good idea, will be barred from making their views known in the most effective way available to them: television advertising.

Just this morning we learned that Martin Sheen, AKA “President Bartlett” on NBC’s West Wing, is cutting anti-Bush ads for Handgun Control, Inc. The ads will run in several crucial swing states. This should surprise no one, as Sheen has always been a Sandalista Leftist.

Presumably, this is precisely the sort of soft-money mischief Kristol would like to see outlawed — to the Republicans’ benefit. If liberals who have maxed-out donations to Gore can’t speak through such lefty groups, that’s great news for the GOP. Of course, under such a system, the NRA couldn’t advertise against Gore either. Well, that sounds fair, right?

Wrong. Because while conservatives will be muzzled during campaign season (and let’s face it, it’s always campaign season) liberals will still have these massive political commercials called West Wing, Law and Order, and Will and Grace, not to mention movies like The American President, Dave, Pleasantville, etc, etc. And, oh yeah, there are these other pro-abortion, anti-gun, anti-religious, pro-gay commercials called World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, as well as such high-impact campaign leaflets as the New York Times and the Washington Post. The elite popular and political culture is nigh-upon monolithically liberal on every social and economic issue. To say this isn’t true is to admit you don’t know anything about the popular culture. Those without access to that culture need the opportunity to make counter-arguments more than liberal groups do.

But even if West Wing were about a conservative president, and Will and Grace were a discussion program about the nature of Catholic theology, why should the federal government be able to decide whose voice gets heard and whose doesn’t? This is a principle I would like to think many conservatives would stick to, even if it works against their narrow political self-interest. In fact, just this morning it was reported that the wacky pro–partial-birth abortion group, NARAL, will not adhere to the Lazio-Clinton soft-money agreement. They plan on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on anti-Lazio ads any day now. NARAL says that the Lazio-Clinton soft-money agreement blocks their right to free speech. And guess what? I totally agree.


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