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The good guys provide good cover

Like most politicians, presidents can be shameless in their exploitation of other people. President Clinton has given us a classic example in his designation of Walter F. Mondale and Nancy Kassebaum-Baker to lead a "crusade" for campaign finance reform.

Both the former vice president, a Democrat, and the former senator from Kansas, a Republican, apparently have completed their public service with shining reputations. As Vice President Al Gore said in announcing the appointments, they are "two of America's leading public citizens."

So what could be more politically natural than for the White House to use their good names to try to put a better face on the president's image on the campaign fund-raising issue? It is, as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott put it, "another effort to distract attention from all the problems that they're having to deal with."

As a practical matter, it is hard to see what Mondale and Kassebaum-Baker can do to educate the public and persuade Congress on the virtues of campaign finance reform. Mondale ran for president back in 1984 and served as ambassador to Japan in Clinton's first term, but he is hardly an influential figure with an electorate that has an attention span of about 12 minutes.

Kassebaum-Baker _ she recently married former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee _ was a respected senator but never a household name outside the Republican Party and the political community.

But the White House is so clearly on the defensive on the issue that just identifying itself with some of the good guys seems to be a sensible public relations gesture. The same can be said of Clinton's repeated declarations that he supports the McCain-Feingold reform bill now languishing in the Senate.

That is not the same thing as making a serious effort to write new legislation regulating political spending. If either the White House or the Republican leaders in Congress were serious about reform, they would choose some negotiators and sit them down to negotiate the terms one by one.

No one knowledgeable about the issue believes McCain-Feingold can be passed intact. And that probably would include the sponsors themselves _ RepublicanSen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

But everyone knowledgeable about the issue also knows that this is a situation requiring trade-offs. To name one obvious sticking point, the Republicans are not going to be willing to sacrifice their advantage in raising "soft money" from corporate contributors without a corresponding sacrifice by the Democrats in raising similar money from labor unions.

That is the core of the problem. The current system, as rotten as it is, is one that gives some advantages to Republicans, some to Democrats and many to incumbents of both parties. The unsurprising result is a pronounced inertia resisting change of any kind.

Meanwhile, despite all the obvious flaws in the system now, there has been remarkably little public pressure for change. Polls show that voters believe the current system is corrupt but have no confidence in the politicians devising a new one that cannot be similarly corrupted within an election cycle or two _ just as the post-Watergate reforms enacted in 1974 began to fall apart as soon as 1980.

The White House's announced purpose in seeking the help of Mondale and Kassebaum-Baker is to build that pressure. But they could expect precious little help from any of the constituencies on which they might be expected to rely. Except for Common Cause, most of the public lobbies operating here have a stake in maintaining at least those features of the present system that allow them to exert their own influence. There is, in short, no one speaking for the electorate at large.

There is no mystery about what needs to be done to reform the campaign financing system. The "soft money" loophole needs to be closed. Candidates need to be given incentives _ cheap television time, for example _ if they agree to limit their spending. The unrealistic and outdated limits on individual contributions need to be raised. There should be more timely disclosure and particularly more timely enforcement of the rules. The role of political action committees should be reduced.

Fritz Mondale and Nancy Kassebaum-Baker are the kind of people who could make such a case effectively. But the operative question is whether Clinton and the Republican leaders in Congress are willing to bargain seriously.

Tribune Media Services