Politics & Policy

Artless Paul

What to do with those pesky contributions?

The Ron Paul presidential campaign replied last week to Mona Charen’s recent column critical of him, in the form of a letter from his press secretary, Jesse Benton. The letter addresses several issues from Charen’s original piece, but one portion actually makes news that, to my knowledge, had appeared nowhere else previously.

Just over a month after Paul’s unsolicited $500 donation from neo-Nazi Don Black was revealed, Paul’s campaign has taken a position on what it will do with the money. Previously, Benton had told me the campaign was still deliberating on the issue.

Denouncing racism and anti-Semitism as “small-minded ideologies,” and calling freedom “the antidote” to bigotry, Benton writes:

If a handful of individuals with views anathema to Dr. Paul’s send in checks, then they have wasted their money. I cannot profess to understand the motivations of Don Black as neither Dr. Paul nor I know who he is, but a simple Google search shows that his $500 contribution has netted him at least 88 news hits, including Charen’s column. Perhaps a better explanation for his “contribution” is not support for Ron, but the attention he knew he would receive.

This is definitely not a response for the faint of heart — most campaigns will part with a small amount of cash at the slightest hint of controversy. This has never been the way Ron Paul operates.

But the controversy raises a broader question. Campaigns must return illegal contributions — stolen money, straw donor money, or corporate money, for example. But what are they ethically or morally obligated to do when they receive legal contributions from one or two individuals known to be controversial?

History shows that these contributions can become a political liability. Democrats successfully harangued Republican House candidates and incumbents for their donations from Tom DeLay when he was indicted, even though he had been convicted of nothing and probably will not be. Candidates had to dump contributions they had received from Duke Cunningham before his stunning fall from grace on bribery charges.

And it happens in both parties — on Wednesday of last week, this release went out from the chairman of Connecticut’s GOP:

Republican State Chairman Chris Healy Wednesday called on Congressman Chris Murphy (D-5th) to return approximately $15,000 in campaign contributions from executives of Haven Healthcare – a Middletown based nursing home operator found to be chronically deficient in providing care to elderly residents.

This is an exercise in “guilt by association” — the idea that a backdoor connection to an unsavory person implies impropriety. In political campaigns, this fallacious argument often works, which is why candidates usually dump the money just to avoid trouble. But in principle, should they? If Mark Foley is exposed as a pervert, does the money he gave other politicians suddenly acquire a different moral status? Assuming the worst about Haven Healthcare, do its executives’ contributions pollute Chris Murphy’s reelection campaign? (And given that money is fungible, can’t Murphy argue that he’s already spent the money on, say, his employees’ health care?)

Paul’s line — probably the correct one, if not the wisest politically — is that no matter how evil the donor, the return of a political contribution is a purely symbolic act undertaken for public-relations purposes.

Republicans predictably attacked Hillary Clinton in her 2000 Senate race when she got a donation from the now-imprisoned Aburahman Alamoudi, an avowed supporter of Hamas and Hizbullah. Yet one must consider exactly what is being implied by the “guilt by association” argument behind the attack. As evil or conniving as conservatives may think Senator Clinton, should anyone really think she is “pro-terrorist” just because he gave her the cash? Given that Clinton had not solicited money from the terror-supporting community, a denunciation of the terror groups involved should have been sufficient to falsify such a claim.

Her campaign wisely avoided trouble and killed the story by simply giving it back. The decision in such cases depends upon a campaign’s pain threshold in the public relations department.

As with Clinton’s case, no one really thinks that Ron Paul is a racist or an anti-Semite. Yet he won’t return the money because his “pain threshold” has always been very high — he hardly cares what anyone thinks, as his maverick voting record in Congress demonstrates. The Paul campaign needed to address this particular contribution somehow, but I never expected him to return the money. It would have been a concession to the big public-relations game that he abhors (and therefore plays very poorly).

In principle, Benton’s reply addresses the issue and absolves Paul of any real relationship with Black. Paul never asked for Black’s contribution or those of any of the thousands who have donated to him — in fact, Paul’s campaign bears almost no responsibility for its fundraising success at all.

Yet even if Paul is in the right, he continues to display the political artlessness that constitutes part of his appeal, yet could now harm his campaign. Few would have expected negative ads or mailers against Paul, long-shot candidate that he is. But after an incredible month of fundraising, he probably has more cash on hand than any of the other GOP candidates right now. He has also registered at eight percent in two consecutive polls in New Hampshire — the word is that people there are nearly drowning in his mailers already, and he has at least two ads running.

Competition in New Hampshire is fierce right now, and so Paul can expect another candidate — perhaps Mike Huckabee or John McCain if he has any juice left — to come after him in order to peel away some of this support. The Black donation could become an issue simply because Paul did not return it. But at least now he has addressed the issue, and he has a blanket answer to the charge that he takes money from kooks and Klansmen.

— David Freddoso is an NRO political reporter.

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