AUSTIN, Texas -- The Democrats in the U.S. Senate have an unusual opportunity coming up in the next few weeks. One could even call it unique, if unique were not a forbidden word in newspapers. The Democrats can prove that everybody who voted for Ralph Nader was right. It's not often that a party gets to do a thing like that.
The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill hit the Senate floor this week with Democrats wobbling all over God's little acre.
Despite the heroic stand of several Republican senators who have come out in favor of the bill, Democrats will get--and deserve--the blame if the bill fails.
This is one of those rare moments when the political system has the clarity of High Noon. We like to think of political fights as a morality play of good versus evil, when in reality they almost never are. Most serious political fights are over decisions that are 51-49. This one isn't.
It's about whether there are two political parties or one--the Money Party. Either the Democrats stand for something or they don't, and if they stand for letting the current system of legalized bribery continue, then we're better off voting for Ralph Nader.
The opportunity here for the D's is clear, particularly since the Republicans are off to such an incredibly fast sprint-start in proving the case for McCain-Feingold.
Gee, what a record. Hard to see how the influence of campaign contributions on politics could get clearer than the credit-card industry's purchase of a harsher bankruptcy law, industry's purchase of the repeal of rules to prevent repetitive stress injuries and High George Dubya's 180 on CO2.
As Joseph Welch once said to Sen. Joe McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
That McCain-Feingold is an imperfect instrument is beyond argument. It's not as though we are accustomed to flawless legislation from Congress. The truth is, unless we start by cleaning up the soft money in politics, we'll never get anything more done.
One understands the Democratic money people are in full flower against McCain-Feingold on the grounds that the D's actually have an edge in raising soft money. Are these, by any chance, the same people who have brought such distinction to their party via James Riady, a Buddhist temple, tangled flow-through schemes and their happy acceptance of immense donations from Marc Rich? Think how much these folks have done to improve the party's standing with the public. By all means, let's follow their lead.
President W. Bush, who is so fond of citing the Texas Legislature as a font of bipartisan wisdom, will be interested to learn that last week the Texas Senate voted unanimously for the first real campaign-finance reforms in the state's history. Since Texas is the Wild West of campaign finance--essentially no rules, absolutely no limits--this is a startling development.
True, state Sen. Florence Shapiro's bill is not strong gargle, but it does prevent hidden corporate contributions and forces out-of-state PAC contributions into the open.
One of the annual delights of the debate over campaign-finance reform is the appearance of new friends of the 1st Amendment; they spring up like dandelions in April. With a few honorable exceptions, those who carry on over the dire 1st Amendment implications of campaign-finance reform are summer soldiers and sunshine patriots when it comes to freedom of speech. Their sole interest is in the peculiar proposition that money is free speech.
We never hear from them when anything but big political bucks are at stake: In those nasty, gut-check fights when freedom of speech has to protect ugly and repellent ideas, these Fairweather Firsters are nowhere to be found. But their pompous and condescending lectures on freedom of speech are a treat for connoisseurs of hypocrisy.
Please believe that all citizens have a role in this fight: Wobbling Democrats and heroic Republicans need to hear a steady drumbeat of support from the public. From C-SPAN junkies to Americans so cynical they haven't bothered to vote for years, this fight is your fight. Speak up or forever hold your peace.