Will campaign-finance reform turn Billl Clinton into a kingmaker?

Political commentary and more.
March 18 2002 4:23 AM

Kausfiles Has Seen Bill Clinton's Future!

Campaign-finance reform could turn him into a kingmaker.

Everybody agrees the latest campaign-finance reform (CFR) legislation, which now appears headed for passage, will have some "unintended consequences." Kausfiles thinks it has spotted a big one: CFR will lead to the resurrection of Bill Clinton.

Here's why:

The main thrust of the current reform bills is to ban unlimited "soft money" contributions to the national political parties. In the future, the parties will have to use funds raised in strictly regulated amounts. But institutions outside the parties—nonprofit advocacy groups, for example, or other groups of citizens—will still be able to take in unlimited contributions from individuals. The reform bills try to restrict how these independent groups can spend their money to influence elections, but the groups will still be able to do a lot, especially after the courts cut out the unconstitutional parts of the new law.

One clear result of CFR, then—a consequence so widely foreseen it can't really be called "unintended"—is less power for the parties and more power for independent, non-party players. We can expect a race by Washington lobbyist-consultants to set up independent organizations (with nice, "Citizens-for-Good-Things" names) that will then try to collect big money contributions from individuals and use them to promote candidates and gain influence. Newsweek has already found one possible prototype for these organizations, a group (the "21st Century Energy Project") organized by GOP lobbyist Ed Gillespie.

Yet, in this race to see who gets to become an independent power broker, some players will have a natural leg up. They are the people who already have the proven ability to raise large sums of soft money. If there were a Democrat, say, who was already the party's biggest fund-raising draw, who knew politicians around the country but didn't have any ambitions for national elective office himself, he or she might quickly establish himself as a dominant, if not the dominant, money center, with all the power that would come with it.

Gee, do the Democrats have such a figure? Why, yes! What's more, right now Bill Clinton looks like a man who could use a new post-presidential life plan. He has no major formal office—no big task forces or diplomatic missions. His designated successor didn't succeed. We read about Clinton mainly in the gossip columns when he flirts with women, or in the news pages when ex-aides either come under scandalous suspicion or run for office (often by distancing themselves from him). Clinton will always be a controversial figure, for good reason, but without a pulpit he's deprived of his main weapon, his ability to articulate and defend his policies. As a stationary piñata for Republicans to bash, he's seen his poll numbers fluctuate wildly, mainly in a downward direction. He travels the country raising money for his party without having the power to decide how that money is spent.

Wouldn't he prefer to be chairman of the Alliance for Opportunity, Responsibility, and Community, a powerful post-CFR group that raised millions and used the money to run ads on behalf of selected Democratic candidates? It's not unthinkable that such a group might quickly eclipse the poor, regulated official Democratic Party itself in terms of advertising might. Like the Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka—who resigned amid charges of corruption in 1974 but remained a de facto boss in his party for another 10 years—Clinton could have an ex-presidential afterlife almost as significant as his presidency. Maybe he wouldn't be a kingmaker, but he could easily be a princemaker—the decisive influence in races for governor or Congress. You certainly can't say that Clinton, who pioneered the abuse of the soft-money loophole, doesn't understand the power of big money and expensive TV buys.

In the process, Clinton could also fill a specific void in our politics, namely the lack of a structural counterweight within the Democratic Party to the generally very liberal influence of interest groups and party activists. Sure, there's the Democratic Leadership Council, which has considerable intellectual influence in Washington. But the DLC can't match the raw political muscle of phone-banking unions and turnout-boosting civil rights groups. An independent Clinton group, with the power to bombard TV viewers (and, significantly, intervene in primaries) might help neutralize those liberal lobbies.

It must gall Clinton to see the free trade, welfare-reforming, budget-balancing Third Way he so painstakingly formulated get tossed overboard in the rush to appeal to liberal Democratic 2004 primary voters (just as it galled him to see Gore toss aside Clintonism in favor of a lugubrious populism in 2000). After campaign-finance reform, he will be in a position to do something about it. .

Why would anybody want to give money to Clinton if they couldn't expect, in return, the sort of special favors a sitting president, or governing party, can provide? The answer is they can't really expect those favors now from the Democratic National Committee—yet DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe finds it useful to employ Clinton as a fund-raiser. You'd be foolish to give big bucks to the DNC if you want to move a telecommunications bill through the Senate Commerce Committee—if that's the favor you want, you give directly to the senators involved. But you do give to the DNC if you stand to benefit when the Democrats generally win power (winning back the House, for example, or the White House). You give if you want to be an ambassador someday, or if you want to sit on the dais and schmooze with famous men and women. Some people even give because they believe Democrats are right! All these factors would apply, to a greater or lesser degree, to Clinton's independent fund-raising. Plus he could offer rich businessmen something the DNC can't offer—the ability to use their money to move the party away from the left.

There are technical details to be worked out, of course. Would the Alliance for Opportunity, Responsibility, etc., be a nonprofit group, and if so, what kind? If it's a nonprofit, the campaign-reform bills would seem to ban it from using unlimited donations to advertise during the 60 days prior to an election. But the 60-day restriction may not survive the court challenge—and even if it does, Clinton (acting on Dick Morris' advice) convinced many in 1996 that ads bought more than 60 days before an election can still have a big impact. Clinton would also have to be careful not to "coordinate" his efforts with the candidates he supports, and he'd have to do something to prevent contributions to his group from being deemed contributions to his wife, the senator from New York. Maybe his wife, who is periodically rumored to be considering a divorce, will solve this problem for him.

I broached the independent fund-raising idea to a couple of Clinton insiders—people who would let me know if it was crazy—and they lit right up. ("He could have enormous influence," said one.) If Clinton hasn't already figured out that CFR holds the key to his future, someone should get on the phone to Chappaqua. And tell them kausfiles sent you!

Robert Kuttner cements his reputation as an economic forecaster: 

"Unemployment will stay moderately high this year—at least in the 6 percent range."

       —Robert Kuttner, "Enronomics, Anyone,"  the American Prospect, Feb. 27.

"… the economy created 66,000 jobs last month, and the unemployment rate fell to 5.5 percent, from 5.6 percent in January, according to the Labor Department's seasonally adjusted numbers."

       —The New York Times, 10 days later.