Senator Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee opened hearings into campaign finance abuses on July 8, 1997, with an uncharacteristic, and fatal, mistake. Thompson is an astute and levelheaded public servant and, though only in his first full term, a senator of unusual experience. As a young lawyer, he was Senator Howard Baker’s chief minority counsel in the Senate Watergate hearings of 1973 and the interrogator who drew from President Richard Nixon’s aide Alexander Butterfield the disclosure of the White House taping system. Now, a quarter-century later, his face looks, as was once said of Senator Everett Dirksen, as if he had slept in it. Before his election to the Senate he had made a successful second career in Hollywood playing make-believe Fred Thompsons—slow-spoken authority figures of imposing presence. Even his opponents readily concede that he is a serious man trying to serve the public good.
But in his opening statement to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Thompson was seduced into the mistake that has undermined most previous investigations of President Clinton and his administration: he did not confine himself to laying out the provable and egregious abuses of campaign finance laws in the two previous elections. He had ample material: the White House kaffeeklatsches for big donors, the huge sums donated to the Democratic Party by shadowy overseas Chinese contributors, the administration’s blatant peddling of access to the President and of opportunities to be photographed in his company, with few questions asked. Instead of sticking to these indisputable facts, Thompson cited “allegations of a plan hatched by the Chinese government to pour illegal money into American political campaigns. Our investigation suggests it affected the 1996 presidential race.”
Like so many of his Republican colleagues, Thompson overreached, making charges he could not prove and letting Clinton and his allies portray themselves as victims of vengeful Republicans who have never accepted the legitimacy of his presidency. Clinton received only a plurality of the votes in both 1992 and 1996, and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas inaugurated the delegitimizing of Clinton when he announced shortly after the 1992 election that he, Dole, would represent the 57 percent of the public who had voted against Clinton. Under direct questioning in 1997, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would not even acknowledge that Clinton had been legitimately elected to office. Thompson’s accusation, therefore, seemed to be not a genuine line of inquiry but a challenge to the validity of the 1996 election and yet another partisan assault on the President. Democrats who had no particular love for Clinton or loyalty to the White House immediately came to his defense.
Clinton may have a variety of transgressions on his record, but he is not the Manchurian Candidate, installed in the White House by Chinese money. Though there is ample evidence of mysterious Chinese money having been sent to Democrats, Thompson could not document his accusation that a Chinese government plot was directing it or that it had any effect on the 1996 presidential race. He quickly began backing away from the implications of his own innuendo. “It never occurred to me that this would become a partisan matter,” he said with apparent innocence. But the harm was done. The Senate hearings, which might have led to long-overdue reform of campaign financing, immediately degenerated into partisan quibbling about who had raised more shady money first, the Republicans or the Democrats. Predictably, when the hearings were about to become truly bipartisan by examining Republican fund-raising practices as well, the Republican Senate leadership pulled the plug.
What lured Thompson into his misstep? He was looking for a hook—a “blockbuster,” said his friend Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi—that would catch the cameras and microphones. Thompson sensed that twenty-five years after Watergate—and after all the other real and imaginary scandals that have followed it—mere campaign finance fraud was not enough to attract public attention. In an age when we can hear on half the nation’s radio stations speculation about whether Clinton was involved with Arkansas drug runners or whether his wife was behind the “murder” of former White House Deputy Counsel Vince Foster, the real-life, everyday sordidness of our political world is tame stuff.
We know there have been genuine scandals, chiefly those involving President Ronald Reagan’s approval of arms sales to Iran and Clinton’s lies about his sex life. But after Watergate we have also had Lancegate, an imaginary banking scandal involving President Jimmy Carter’s budget director, Bert Lance; Iraqgate, a fictitious charge that the Bush administration financed Iraqi arms purchases; and Whitewater, the ever-wandering inquiry into the Clintons’ land dealings that lasted seven years and ended only in June, when Webster Hubbell pleaded guilty to a technical offense and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr finally declared that the Arkansas phase of his inquiry was over.
We have had Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, firing bullets into a melon in pursuit of his theory that Vince Foster was murdered. We have had former Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York conducting Banking Committee hearings into decade-old Arkansas real estate deals. We have had the eager pursuit of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, acquitted on all thirty counts of accepting illegal gratuities, and the ongoing prosecution of former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros for allegedly undercounting the money he paid to a pushy former girlfriend. At the time that Thompson spoke, Monica Lewinsky had not yet surfaced, but the political landscape was already littered with the bodies of innocent people who had been chewed up in the scandal machine, their reputations wrecked and their life savings lost to lawyers’ fees. With this competition, Thompson felt he needed something sexy.
The books by Elizabeth Drew and Bob Woodward are both about scandal, but scandal of very different kinds. Drew examines how money corrupts our political process and steals democracy from us. Woodward recounts—but fails to examine—a history of scandalmongering that has corrupted our political discourse and, at its worst, crippled our government, also stealing democracy from us.
Campaign finance reform? At the mere mention of those words, it is tempting to succumb to the national boredom with the subject. Drew’s book goes over familiar ground. Money corrupts politics. It is outrageous; but it is not a new story and it has been told in recent years exceptionally well in, to name only three books, Thomas Byrne Edsall’s The New Politics of Inequality, Brooks Jackson’s Honest Graft, and William Greider’s impressively detailed Who Will Tell the People. Drew herself has dug deep in this field, and her last book, Whatever It Takes, exposed the surprisingly powerful influence on our political life of such groups as beer wholesalers. Drew stalks Capitol Hill filling one notebook after another, and every few years empties them into a book centered on a theme of the moment, plus whatever else happened to be occurring at the time. This one concentrates on campaign finance but also digresses into the impeachment of President Clinton, a subject that has no connection to her main theme except that it occurred at the same time that campaign finance reform was being debated.
But Drew brings fresh reporting and illuminating insights to the question of who owns the US government. Perhaps the most telling fact is cited toward the end of her book. In the 1998 congressional elections, two records were set. Spending on television advertising reached an all-time high of $531.9 million, and voter turnout was 36 percent, the lowest in any non-presidential election year since 1942. There is a connection, Drew implies. Most of the TV commercials were attack ads, designed to turn voters against a candidate rather than have them cast a positive vote for the candidate supported by the ad’s sponsors.
There appears to be a cynical new strategy at work: Republican or Democratic campaign consultants do not expect to persuade independent or opposition voters; rather, they don’t want those iffy or hostile voters to vote at all. They prefer to leave the race to the hard-core partisans on both sides. Democrats have slightly more grass-roots support, according to current polls, but Republicans traditionally have higher voter turnout rates. Each side has an incentive to discourage the other’s voters from showing up at the polls and it is apparently easier to be negative than to project a positive vision.
The astonishing amounts now raised by both political parties depress turnout in another way. Voters, especially the young, see access to power being sold to the richest and most powerful special interests and conclude that their single vote carries no weight in a Washington where congressmen must spend so much time courting contributors. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has vowed to make campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his run for the Republican presidential nomination, blames this highly visible influence-peddling for the record low turnout among eighteen- to twenty-six-year-old voters. They do not believe that Washington works for them.
Both Republicans and Democrats oppose campaign finance reform. Senator Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, told Drew why Democrats like the status quo, which permits virtually unlimited contributions of “soft money”—contributions that are theoretically not spent in advocating the election or defeat of particular candidates but nevertheless support the positions they take in their campaigns. “There is no financial base for the core issues of the Democratic Party,” he said.
I’ve said so in the Democratic Caucus several times. Civil rights, the environment, pro-choice—they have a voting constituency but they have no financial strength. In current American politics you can’t survive without a financial constituency…. The Democratic Party is disproportionately funded by organized labor and our Jewish constituency. The Republicans have a small-donor base. We don’t.
Torricelli points to one of the lingering ironies of American politics: the Democratic Party, the party of the little guy, depends more on fat-cat contributions than do the Republicans. One proposed reform—requiring that a congressman raise all or most campaign money in his or her own district—draws the opposition of the Congressional Black Caucus, particularly those members from poor black districts in the South who rely heavily on out-of-state contributions from liberals.
Republicans, in turn, oppose reform because the current system has put them in power—giving them control not only of the Congress but of many state governments. They also fear that if they surrender their money advantage, they will be swept away by the grass-roots get-out-the-vote activities organized by labor unions and will be drowned out by the supposedly liberal press and television. Drew makes a fairly persuasive case that the First Amendment argument against campaign finance reform—that restricting contributions is an infringement on freedom of speech—is bogus and not believed even by its leading advocate, Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky who has led the effort to thwart reform in the Senate.
It is a bizarre paradox: both parties fear that campaign reform will cost them political victory. In a two-party system, they can’t both be right, but both sides seem genuinely afraid of changing the system. Drew quotes one of the leading advocates of campaign finance reform, Representative Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican: “The leaders of both parties telling their freshmen that their parties would lose control [if reforms were enacted] says it all.”