It’s the Issues, Stupid

As they cautiously climb off the window ledge, skittish Democrats still cannot shake a final pre-election nightmarish fear. What congressional Democrats worry about these days are not bimbo eruptions or the even the sudden appearance of that fabled second White House intern. The single factor that Democrats brood could still turn this themeless pudding of a campaign into a Republican sweep is the outpouring of issue-advocacy ads paid for out of the GOP’s bulging soft-money accounts.

Yes, once again, the Democrats are living to regret the bold path blazed back in 1995 by those dedicated campaign reformers and moral exemplars, Bill Clinton and Dick Morris. As oft recounted, the Clinton campaign perfected the technique of using unregulated soft money (John Huang, please call your office) to fund phony “issue ads” singing the president’s praises. Then in 1996, the misbegotten Supreme Court punched a new hole in our Swiss-cheese shaped election laws by decreeing that political parties possess the same legal rights as individuals to buy TV spots to petition elected officials for the redress of grievances. The sad-eyed result in this campaign cycle is that both parties–especially the Republicans–are shamelessly running ads that look and sound like campaign commercials, but maintain the ludicrous fiction that they are solely designed to sway congressional votes on pending legislative issues.

This deceptive technique is particularly visible in Wisconsin, where Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold has become the GOP’s leading national target out of revenge for his zealous advocacy of campaign reform. The National Republican Senatorial Committee–run as a personal fief by Feingold’s anti-reform nemesis Sen. Mitch McConnell–has broadcast a series of vicious attack ads in Wisconsin. In one well-publicized spot, an older woman declares on camera, “You gotta watch that ol’ Russ Feingold, he’s slippery. Like him supporting that $16-billion bill with all those wasteful government programs and then pretending he opposed it.”

Clearly, the GOP is not after the good-grammar vote. But what flies in the face of even the tortured logic of our campaign laws is that the purported policy issue under discussion in this ad is Feingold’s vote in favor of Bill Clinton’s economic stimulus package in 1993. That’s right, 1993. Any day now, the Republicans are apt to come back with an equally relevant issue spot urging voters to call Feingold and tell him “to vote against Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan.”

But this issue-advocacy flimflam loses much of its potency when vulnerable GOP incumbents are facing aggressive Democratic challengers. In Washington’s first district, which includes the humble offices of Slate, the Republicans are panting to defeat Democrat Jay Inslee for his temerity in running a campaign ad that attacked Newt Gingrich and local Congressman Rick White for supporting an open-ended impeachment inquiry. But the GOP can’t use their soft-money accounts to slam Inslee because he doesn’t currently hold public office.

Instead, in districts like this, the Republicans are reduced to blanketing the airwaves with the most boring form of political communication–positive spots. A typical soft-money pro-White ad blandly praises “Republican ideas for smaller class sizes, better teacher and involved parents.” Not only is this a blatant ripoff of a major Clinton theme (Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is running very similar ads in her re-election race), but it has all the emotional power of elevator music. In the GOP commercial, voters are urged: “Call Congressman Rick White. Tell him to keep working for teacher testing and smaller class size.” Just makes you want to race for the phone, doesn’t it?

If the negative soft-money spots like those used against Feingold prove as potent as Democrats fear, America may be well on its way to enacting de facto term limits. Henceforth, challengers will have a built-in advantage, since they alone cannot be attacked by mock issue ads. Details like this make Chatterbox so proud that his chosen calling is covering the three-card monte game that we call electoral politics.

–Walter Shapiro