As the television advertising wars of 2004 begin, a full-throttle confrontation is brewing that could defang the Democrats. The GOP's plan is simple: block their most vocal critics' big sources of advertising dollars and then monopolize the microphone.
In early March, the Republican National Committee sent threatening letters to 250 television stations, urging them not to run MoveOn.org's ads. On March 9, the Bush campaign joined party operatives in an attempt to alter the fine print of federal election law to ban big donations to groups like MoveOn.org and other Democratic activist groups.
When Republicans run scared, they usually justify whatever it takes to win while accusing their opponents of hypocrisy, even if they've used or continue to utilize the very tactics they're criticizing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the effort to clamp down on the Democrats' so-called 527 committees. The committees are named after a section in the tax code that quickly became the loophole du jour following the passage of the 2002 McCain-Feingold law.
When the reform law, most of which was upheld by the Supreme Court, prevented political parties from raising six-figure "soft money" dollars, campaign strategists turned to the arcane 527s committees to raise big money. Money raised through 527s can be used to run political ads if those ads aren't "coordinated" with the parties.
So Democratic 527s are sprouting up all over the Beltway. Harold Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff for President Clinton, and Jim Jordan, who until last fall managed Sen. John Kerry's campaign, created the Media Fund. Ellen Malcolm, who founded the pro-choice EMILY's List, joined former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal to create Americans Coming Together (ACT), which receives substantial funding from George Soros. According to the March 10 New York Times, the Media Fund and ACT together have commitments of $70 million, in contrast to the Bush campaign's $100 million-plus war chest.
That's why the GOP has cried "foul." But Republicans, of course, have their own 527 committees. In fact, they helped pioneer the use of such "independent" committees when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used GOPAC in 1994 to support dozens of Republican House candidates. During its heyday, GOPAC reeled in top-dollar donations from Republican financiers, evaded the Federal Election Commission, and then helped deliver the first GOP House majority in decades. A more recent example of this tactic is House Majority Leader Tom Delay's use of a children's charity to launder donations and conceal donor identities for this summer's Republican Party convention.
The GOP's tactics to clamp down on 527s are shrewd. At first, a previously unknown Republican 527 called Americans for a Better Country asked the FEC to clarify if it could collect the kind of money Democrats were getting from people like Soros. The FEC took the bait and last month said it would examine such donations, causing real consternation in Democratic circles.
Then, on March 9, the Bush campaign filed papers with the FEC, charging that the big donations to Harold Ickes' Media Group were the same as the "soft money" donations to political parties that were banned under the McCain-Feingold law.
In a classic Washington political utterance -- part threat, part principle -- Bradley Smith, the Republican chairman of the FEC, and Ellen Weintraub, the Democratic vice-chair, co-wrote a commentary published in the March 1 edition of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill journal, sounding this warning: "We fear the  debate has been staged by partisans with short-term time horizons. We suggest that their apparent preference -- do what you can by whatever means at hand -- is no way to regulate politics."
This statement of high-minded principle may seem like an oasis in the realpolitik swamp that is, and has been, federal elections for decades. And, indeed, Weintraub moderated that view at a Senate Rules Committee hearing on 527s on March 10, saying, "I will not be rushed to make hasty decisions, with far-reaching implications, at the behest of those who see in our hurried action their short-term political gain."
Some campaign finance reformers have suggested that 527s need to be dealt with. But they argue, as Weintraub has indicated, that it's unfair to change campaign rules in midstream. That's why, for instance, McCain-Feingold didn't take effect until after the 2002 election cycle. The president's supporters, however, say this issue cannot wait.
But in the idealistic eddy that is the professional world of campaign finance reformer -- and occasionally the FEC -- the rules of the game can be changed, even in the middle of the most contentious of elections, if the guiding principle is significant enough. Those seeking new FEC rules on donations to 527s say such a moment is at hand, arguing big donations made to influence federal elections have been banned since 1974 and that prohibition has been upheld by the Supreme Court.
In an ironic footnote to the 527 fight, partisan Democrats are fuming that their Republican rivals have been helped by some of their own, notably a cadre of politically liberal, long-time reformers led by Fred Wertheimer, the eminence grise of Washington's campaign finance world. In fact, the small universe of professional campaign finance reformers and election lawyers who helped draft the McCain-Feingold bill and successfully defend it before the Supreme Court is now divided.
Then there are the self-proclaimed political pragmatists who claim that the emergence of 527 committees underscores the futility of trying to regulate big money in big elections because both sides will do whatever it takes to raise as much money as possible.
Either way, the FEC is expected to rule on this 527 funding issue this spring. Political observers and election lawyers all say the panel has a "full range of options" before it, suggesting there will be some new regulations forthcoming.
Conservative pundits, such as editors at The Weekly Standard, are of course enjoying the spectacle. But there's much more at stake than an insider spat in campaign reform circles. If the GOP prevails -- which is likely -- and Democrats cannot raise the money to compete with the president's ads on television, then the FEC would be intervening in a presidential race on a magnitude approaching the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore.
Stay tuned. Because the political winds are blowing hard.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior editor for TomPaine.com.