Due entirely to good luck, I have been able to spend most of my adult life in the company of the rogues, the characters and, yes, the heroes of American politics. Before picking up a press pass to cover politics, I had helped run campaigns in some 38 U.S. states.
You are now talking to somebody who semi-regularly collected large campaign contributions for individuals and interests representing insurance, banks, racetracks, labor unions, asphalt and developers, to name just a few. You are also in the company of somebody who cheers the gutsy leadership of Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Reps. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., in their fight to banish the curse of unregulated and unreported six-figure campaign contributions called "soft" money.
First, a kind word for former President Bill Clinton, whose good speeches praised campaign finance reform but whose bad actions most especially his last minute pardon of fugitive-traitor-sleazeball Marc Rich may well have made overdue reform action in Congress inevitable.
Clinton's 1996 campaign "irregularities" featured Chinese money and Indonesian gardeners. Under him, the White House's Lincoln Bedroom was one payoff for soft-money donors. Ironically, Bill Clinton's "legacy" could turn out to be real reform of the way we fund our campaigns. And as Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., noted this week, "Marc Rich deserves at least a thank-you note."
The statute of limitations permits me to say why I believe the banning of soft money is an unmixed blessing for our politics. Trust me: Altruism is not an operative principal among large political donors. Do you or anyone you know recall the last time a total stranger gave you a four-, five- or six-figure gift? Of course not. That's not the ordinary behavior of rich and powerful people with strong interests.
Cleveland attorney Jim Friedman, for 30 years a legendary Democratic fund-raiser and activist in Ohio and beyond, hates what soft money has done to the politics he cares about: "What was the unambiguous message to those who were being solicited and who ended up making six-figure contributions? 'That everything is for sale.'"
Not that long ago, citizens of ordinary means but of exceptional energy and imagination could make a difference in most political campaigns. Today, in candidates' and their campaigns' feverish courtship of six-figure donors, campaign volunteers are among the first casualties. Friedman thinks the passage of McCain-Feingold will "reduce the enormous temptation or pressure" on a candidate "to seek and then to be responsive to the agenda of six-figure givers."
Why do McCain, Feingold, Shays and Meehan deserve to be called "gutsy"? Very simply, every member of Congress, liberal or conservative, knows that this campaign finance system is corrupting and that almost everyone involved in its current incarnation feels diminished and sullied by that experience. But every member of Congress, by definition, has mastered the current system, and McCain, Feingold, Shays and Meehan are dangerously tampering with the system that produced those incumbents victories.
Reformers and reform bring with them uncertainty and pose a threat to the livelihood of incumbents. Anybody who calls Shays-Meehan an "incumbent protection act" is either a fool or a fraud.
If you want to see hypocrisy in action, just ask the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) what reprisals it will take against Republican pro-life Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., Trent Lott, R-Miss., Rick Santorum, R-Pa., or Bob Smith, R-N.H., all of whom voted (in hopes of sabotaging McCain-Feingold) for the Wellstone amendments, which would prohibit groups like NRLC from running any TV spots 60 days before an election.
In last year's South Carolina presidential primary, NRLC ran negative radio spots against McCain, questioning the abortion record of this strongly pro-life senator. Why? Because NRLC opposed McCain-Feingold, that's why. But will that pro-life organization now reprimand Lott, Santorum, et al. for their votes? Of course not, because it was all with a wink and a secret handshake to sink McCain-Feingold.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., a savvy former mayor of Springfield and a serious member of the House Ways and Means Committee is no card-carrying member of Common Cause. But Richie Neal sees what big money contributions from big contributors have done to his own party: "As long as both parties take from the same hands, the same interests, you will wait in vain for bold initiatives or great ideas. ... Democrats and Republicans are now playing between the 49 yard lines."
Think about it: Real campaign finance reform might even save our two-party system.
Mark Shields is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.