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  • They Both Do It

    When it comes to campaign finance, there's just not much difference between Republicans and Democrats

    by Jack Beatty

    March 1997

    "They are worse than we are!" President Clinton says of the Republicans and campaign-finance money. He's right. They are worse. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the GOP collected $141 million in "soft money" in the election campaign, while those civic heroes, the Democrats, took in only $123 million.

    Campaign 96's fundraising tally was three times Campaign 92's. But while the big money has only made the Republicans more Republican, it has robbed the Democrats of their historical souls.

    For Republicans, taking money from corporate interests and wealthy individuals is consonant with their beliefs. Republicans are the party of business and of the wealthy. It is fitting that they should be funded by these groups. It is fitting, to give a current example, for them to tack on to last year's minimum wage bill what The Nation has estimated to be $30 billion in tax breaks for the pharmaceutical, computer, electronics, and soft-drink industries. Every Republican who voted for that bill would have done so with or without campaign donations from these industries.

    By contrast, the elite funding of the Democrats is dissonant with their espoused beliefs. Democrats represent powerful interests, of course -- the Trial Lawyer's Bar, for example. But they also claim to be the party of "the luckless and the left out," as Mario Cuomo proudly declared in his celebrated speech to the 1984 Democratic Convention. That claim has long given Democrats a moral edge over Republicans. "The left is the side of the heart," George Santayana wrote, "as the right is the side of the liver." Republicans stood for the liver; Democrats, despite all their boodling, for the heart.

    The punitive GOP welfare bill that Clinton signed into law last fall was a triumph for the liver. The Democrats never had the political courage to raise welfare benefits to keep even with inflation, but for sixty years they kept the New Deal commitment to protect poor children with a federal safety net. That ultimately cost them middle-class votes.

    Guided by Dick Morris's focus-group soundings of middle-American opinion about welfare, Clinton has accepted a bill that ends the federal commitment to the poor. Instead of telling the middle class the truth about welfare -- that it will cost more not less money to replace welfare with work -- Clinton pandered to middle-class prejudice. The new welfare bill cuts billions out of aid to the poor. It blunts the Democrats morally just as money politics guts them ideologically. Today, the Democrats represent Hollywood and Wall Street -- and perhaps also the Chinese Communists, who according to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, have been trying to buy their way into the Clinton White House.

    As the President travels up and down the land raising money, all the while saying that he wants to end the rule of money over American politics, he's clearly only giving lip service to reform. The parties cannot cleanse themselves. They know how they won office -- through ready money, which, according to Senator Phil Gramm, is "a politician's best friend." They don't know how they'd fare in a reformed system. They also know that the polls show that most Americans couldn't care less about campaign-finance reform (and somehow at the same time strongly oppose the public financing of campaigns, which is the only hope for cleaner politics). Absent public pressure, the parties won't end the reign of investor-driven politics. Those who hope for a politics in which the voices of ordinary people can be heard above the importunings of favor-seekers in the Lincoln bedroom will have no choice but to build a third-party movement.

    Tolstoy once described the difference between violence and terrorism as the difference between cat shit and dog shit, which could also apply to the ethical difference between the Democrats and the Republicans when it comes to campaign finance. Like Tolstoy's dogs and cats, both parties do it.

  • More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound
    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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