You might think there's something repulsive about the Democratic Party raising money in half-million-dollar gobs, as the Democratic National Committee did Wednesday night at the biggest political fundraiser in history. Comedian Robin Williams, who entertained the throng at the faux-populist event at the MCI Center, looked down from the stage at the tables at the front of the arena's floor, which held the biggest donors, and threatened to throw himself "right into the posh pit. I'll be picking jewelry off me for days."
But the stranger truth is that this event was as clean as "soft-money" fundraising can get. In a single night, the DNC raised $26.5 million--almost exactly the same amount it raised in its 60 infamous White House coffees four years ago. If these are the alternatives, it's clearly better to pack the MCI arena than to sell the president piecemeal to anyone willing to pony up the price of a White House visit.
All DNC National Chairman Joe Andrew had to do was keep a straight face when he said, about his party, "We don't care about the size of your wallet, just the size of your heart." All the audience had to do was contain the cognitive dissonance that almost always accompanies political money, because it may have reached new heights Wednesday night. Great claims were made for the small-d democratic nature of what organizer Terry McAuliffe billed as a "down-home blue jeans and barbecue bash." The affair included thousands of cheap seats at $50 and $100 each, and McAuliffe gave a rousing speech comparing his dinner with a Republican event held last month. Citing the menu from the GOP event, he poked fun at items such as "creamy goat cheese medallion baked in a sun-dried tomato bread," saying, "In Syracuse, New York, where I grew up, Millie McAuliffe never made this kind of food."
Never mind that most weekdays at lunch time, you will find McAuliffe holding court at the Oval Room, where entrees can run more than 20 bucks. The obvious fact was that although most of the warm bodies in the arena had paid $50 or $100 to attend, the bulk of the money was raised in increments of $50,000 or more; and nearly half of it was raised from 26 people or companies or unions who reached this year's new benchmark of paying or raising $500,000 apiece.
The dissonance reached its peak in speeches by DNC General Chairman Ed Rendell and Vice President Al Gore, who both sternly insisted on their party's loathing of the kinds of contributions they were there to collect. "When we win this election in November, we are committed to getting rid of soft money," roared Rendell. "And four years from now, when we have a similar event--the top ticket is going to cost $100, and we're going to hold it in RFK stadium."
Here, then, was an arena full of Democrats simultaneously denouncing soft money and also glorying in raising more of it than ever before: nothing new about that, except in scale. The money, as everyone present knew, was being raised for an ad campaign on behalf of Vice President Gore that he promised, a few months back, not to wage. Why? Because only a few years ago, everyone who had anything to do with politics understood such "issue ads"--nominally controlled by the party but in fact closely supervised by the nominee--to violate federal election law. But Clinton-Gore got away with it in 1996. And now Gore, who is slipping in the polls, is seen to need the boost of a $30 million DNC ad campaign just a bit more than he needs the boost he thought he could get a few months ago by forswearing such ads.
This is simple pragmatism, Washington style. It requires only that you overlook the ways in which Gore's adherence four years ago to this same spirit of realism terribly, perhaps fatally, undermined the country's picture of him. If Gore's opponents at the Republican National Committee are preparing their own hydrogen bomb--two parts Gore-visits-the-Buddhist-temple to one part Gore-cites-no-controlling-legal-authority--well then, Gore will just have to raise more money to strike back with more ads designed to neutralize the damage from his last dutiful effort to raise enough money to win.
Soft money, like all ills that we learn to accommodate, doesn't so much corrupt as corrode. When President Clinton stood to speak, hecklers began chanting from the risers, "Stop corruption now!" It seemed to infuriate the president, whose microphone was momentarily off. "Turn this on!" he snapped. "If you'd turn this on, they could hear me instead of them."
Wouldn't you be mad, if you had spent every spare hour of your already crushing life, these past eight years, pressing the flesh in rooms full of rich strangers who wanted a piece of you, advancing the proposition that night is day and black is white and soft money is a scourge that you must by all means embrace?
© 2000 The Washington Post Company