The Democrats May Be Hoist on Clinton's Own Petard

The Los Angeles Times

In this election cycle, those 'issues ads' he created last time are likely to be
exceeded by the GOP.

You'd be forgiven if you thought of the contest for the presidency as two
big battles--first, the primary battle to choose each party's nominee, which
this year is effectively over, and then the general election battle, which
starts just after the nominating conventions in August and runs through
election day. So you might suppose that now we'll have a 5-month
breather.

But you'd be wrong. One of the most important battles of the election will
be between now and Aug. 15. That's when each likely nominee will launch
intense barrages of televised ads designed to raise questions in voters'
minds about the suitability of his rival in the opposite party. The ads will be
paid for largely by big, unregulated donations to the Republican and
Democratic national committees-- "soft money," in campaign lingo.

President Clinton will be remembered for many things, but his biggest
legacy to the democratic process comes from what he did before the 1996
general election with money flowing into the Democratic National
Committee. He oversaw the creation of "issues ads," which beat up on Bob
Dole and the Republicans. The ads were developed and run by the same
political consultants who designed the official Clinton campaign ads. But
rather than being paid for by the Clinton campaign, which had agreed to
abide by spending limits, the ads were paid for with unregulated money
from the Democratic National Committee, which raked in about $2 million a
week to air them wherever around the country they'd have the most
impact.

Before then, almost everyone in politics assumed that the federal election
laws barred a candidate who sought federal "matching" funds in a general
election from using unrestricted party donations on ads attacking his
opponent. Bill Clinton, however, exploited what he thought was a
loophole. Neither the Federal Election Commission nor any court had
decided whether advertisements about "issues," which didn't explicitly ask
voters to vote for the candidate who created the ads, were subject to the
spending limits. (After the 1996 election, the FEC staff said they were, but
they were overruled by the FEC's appointed commissioners, who thought
the law ambiguous on this point.)

The Republicans were taken by surprise. Clinton (operating as the DNC)
spent $46.5 million on these issues ads. Dole and the Republican National
Committee spent $18 million on their own versions, which didn't begin until
much later. Undoubtedly, the Clinton strategy helped win him the election:
In February 1996, Dole trailed Clinton by only a few points. Five months
later, after being pummeled by the accusations in the ads and with limited
opportunity to respond to them, Dole was 20 points behind.

The Republicans will not be outfoxed again. Their pockets are deeper than
the Democrats' pockets, and their soft-money system is fully geared up for
the April 1-Aug. 15 air war. The RNC already has accumulated at least $10
million, probably closer to $20 million, and would be even more flush had
John McCain not dented George W. Bush's inevitability. Now that Bush has
regained his footing, the RNC will easily rake in $200 million, according to
Washington experts, most of which will be spent on issues ads attacking
the Democratic nominee.

The DNC, with less than $1.5 million now, won't come close to raising this
much. "What the president and I tell donors," Democratic General
Chairman Edward G. Rendell said recently, "is that we need the money to
be competitive in the period from April 1 to Aug. 15." Clinton is scheduled
to appear at more than 35 DNC fund-raising events before this week, with
the goal of raising $20 million. The DNC's most optimistic projection is to
raise $100 million for the air war, exactly half of what the RNC is almost
certain to amass.

A petard is a small bell-shaped bomb that was used to breach a medieval
gate or wall. Occasionally, a person who set one off didn't get out of the
way in time and, as the saying goes, was hoist on it. Clinton threw a
petard in 1996 on which the Democrats are about to be hoist.

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