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'Issue Ads': The Democrats May Be Hoist on Clinton's Own Petard
Published on Monday, March 13, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
'Issue Ads': The Democrats May Be Hoist on Clinton's Own Petard
by Robert Reich
 

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.

Robert B. Reich, the Former Secretary of Labor, Is a Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Brandeis University and National Editor of the American Prospect Magazine.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

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