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 will be effectively over by the end of March, and then the general election battle, which starts just after the nominating conventions in August and runs through Election Day. And you might suppose that in between we'll have a four-and-a-half-month breather.
But you'd be wrong on all counts. One of the most important battles of the entire election is scheduled to occur between April 1 and August 15. That's when the likely Republican and Democratic nominees are expected to launch intense barrages of televised ads designed to raise questions in voters' minds about the suitability of their rivals. The ads will be paid for largely, if not entirely, by big, unregulated donations to the Republican and Democratic national committees "soft money," in campaign lingo.
Bill Clinton will be remembered for many things, but his biggest legacy for the democratic process comes from what he did before the 1996 general election with money flowing into the Democratic National Committee (DNC). He oversaw the creation of "issue ads" that beat up on Bob Dole and the Republicans. The ads were developed and run by the same political consultants who designed the official Clinton-Gore campaign ads. But rather than being paid for by the Clinton-Gore campaign, which had agreed to abide by spending limits, the ads were funded with unregulated money from the DNC, which raked in about $2 million a week to air them wherever in the country they'd have the most impact.
Before then, almost everyone in politics assumed that the federal election laws barred a candidate who accepted federal "matching" funds in a general election from using unrestricted party donations on ads attacking his opponent. Contributions for "party building" activities were viewed as okay, as were ads financed and created independently of a candidate; but ads created by a candidate and his campaign were clearly subject to the spending limits, or so it was thought. Bill Clinton and Al Gore, however, exploited what they perceived as a loophole. Neither the Federal Election Commission (FEC) nor any court had expressly 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 got overruled by the FEC's commissioners, who thought the law ambiguous on this point.)
The Republicans were taken by surprise. Clinton and Gore (a.k.a. the DNC) spent $46.5 million on these "issue ads." Dole and the Republican National Committee (RNC) ended up spending $18 million on their own versions, which didn't begin to air until much later in the campaign. Undoubtedly, the Clinton-Gore strategy helped win them the election. Consider that in February 1996, Dole trailed Clinton by only a few points. Five months later, after being pummeled by the accusations and questions raised 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 to August 15 air war. At this writing, the RNC already has accumulated at least $10 million, probably closer to $20 million. It would be even more flush had John McCain not dented Bush's inevitability. But if and when George W. regains his footing, the RNC will easily rake in $200 million, according to Washington experts, most of which will be spent on "issue ads" attacking the Democratic nominee.
The DNC won't come close to raising this much dough. Right now it's got less than $1.5 million on hand. "What the president and I tell donors," Edward G. Rendell, general chairman of the Democratic Party, said recently, "is that we need the money to be competitive in the period from April 1 to August 15." Clinton is scheduled to appear at some 35 to 40 DNC fundraising events before mid-March, with the goal of raising $20 million. The DNC's most optimistic projection, if everything goes exactly as hoped, 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 hoisted on it. Bill Clinton threw a petard in 1996, on which the Democrats are about to be hoisted.
The Dems have only one cause for hope. His name is John McCain. You'll remember that back in New Hampshire, both McCain and Bill Bradley jointly pledged not to use soft money. It would be an irony, to the say the least, if McCain were to get the Republican nomination and the Democratic Party were thus shielded from Bill Clinton's petard. The rest of us would not only enjoy a quiet inter-lude between April and August, but also retrieve something of our democracy, which was assumed to be irretrievable after the last presidential election. ¤