Ballot Box

Slander Patrol: Did Gore Break His Word on Soft-Money Ads?

Today, the Democratic National Committee unveils a $25 million campaign of pro-Gore TV ads, the first commercials in the presidential race to be paid for with soft money. The Republican National Committee will respond soon enough with its own soft-money spots, but in the meantime the George W. Bush campaign is having a field day with statements Al Gore made in March that sounded a lot like a promise that his side wouldn’t be the first to air such ads. Did Gore, as Bush supporters are alleging, violate his pledge?

The Republicans cite Gore’s remarks back in March, when the vice president said he would direct the DNC to not run any TV ads paid for with soft money if George W. Bush would ask the RNC to do the same. In offering this disarmament deal, Gore also said his side would not be the first to run soft-money ads. “I challenge you to accept my proposal that we both reject the use of soft money to run issue ads,” the vice president wrote in an e-mail message to George W. Bush. “I will take the first step by requesting the Democratic National Committee not to run any issue ads paid for by soft money unless and until the Republican Party uses money for advertising.”

If you read the final sentence in isolation, the Republicans would seem to have Gore dead to rights. He said his side would go second. Now he’s going first. However, Gore supporters contend that there’s more to the matter than meets the eye. Their first defense is that Gore’s “challenge” was exactly that–an offer, not a unilateral promise. “It was a challenge that was never accepted,” DNC chairman Ed Rendell told the New York Times. “The only a time a challenge becomes binding is when the other side accepts the challenge.”

With the benefit of some Clintonian parsing, it is possible to argue that the phrasing of the message is ambiguous. A clever lawyer could assert–indeed, clever lawyers are asserting–that it’s unclear in the context of the e-mail message whether Gore’s “unless and until” statement is a unilateral no-first-use pledge or a contingent offer. But this contention holds no water, for two reasons. The first is that the e-mail makes no sense if Gore’s no-first-use pledge is contingent on Bush’s accepting the entire agreement. If Bush had accepted Gore’s proposal, there would be no soft-money ads at all in the campaign, making Gore’s promise not to run his first superfluous. The “unless and until” statement is only coherent if Gore’s no-first-use commitment does not depend on Bush’s acceptance of the larger bargain.

That this is the only possible reading of Gore’s message is supported by the way Gore himself described it when he appeared on CNN the following day. “What I did yesterday was to call on the Democratic National Committee–and they’ll comply with this–to not spend any of the so-called soft money on these issue ads unless and until the Republican Party does,” Gore said. That’s an unambiguous no-first-use pledge, without any wiggle room.

But wait–Gore has another line of defense. Arguing in the alternative, he asserts that Republicans have already initiated a soft-money ad first strike, which frees the DNC to fire its own soft-money missiles at will. Asked about his pledge on Good Morning America yesterday, Gore told Charles Gibson, “Well, they have gone first. They did months ago.”

Gore didn’t explain what he was referring to, but others in his corner have. The RNC itself has not run any soft-money ads thus far. But Gore’s e-mail “challenge” to Bush also included this disclaimer: “This agreement would also cover loopholes which other organizations and individuals, like the Republican Leadership Council and the Wyly brothers, have used to raise and spend unlimited soft money to run issue ads without any disclosure of donors.” Again, there’s some possible ambiguity about whether the term “agreement” refers only to the mutual deal not to run any soft-money ads, or to Gore’s unilateral pledge as well. DNC and Gore campaign officials have put the latter construction on it and cited two ads that they say constituted deal-breakers: one by a conservative group called Shape the Debate that spent $1.5 million on anti-Gore ads in California and another by a group called The Coalition To Protect Americans Now that has run ads opposing the administration’s position on missile defense. 

The first of these anti-Gore ads began airing on March 27, which was before any independent groups that favor Gore, such as the Sierra Club or NARAL, began running their own explicitly anti-Bush ads. Handgun Control began airing anti-NRA ads in Austin, Texas, a week earlier, on March 20, but these did not mention Bush by name. So, to get really technical: If 1) the political parties are held responsible for all independent-expenditure ads that run on their side; and 2) the Handgun Control ad doesn’t count because it didn’t mention Bush by name; and 3) the term “agreement” covers Gore’s “unless and until” pledge as well as the larger deal he was offering Bush, then Gore will be able to squeeze through a very narrow escape hatch. 

But this legalistic argument (which the Democrats are not actually making) is worthless, as well. If the Republicans broke the terms of the cease-fire less than two weeks after Gore offered it, why did Democrats wait until June 5 to complain about the violation and say they no longer felt bound by Gore’s pledge? In the nearly three months since Gore made his offer, Democratic Party spokesmen have been quoted in the press saying that Gore would go first with soft-money ads, citing only the first, clearly invalid “no agreement” argument. They haven’t said, until now, that the conservative independent-expenditure ads count as the RNC’s responsibility and thus free Gore from his promise. What’s more, Gore’s March 15 CNN statement clearly refers to ad spending by the parties themselves, not to spending by independent sympathizers.

Conclusion: The DNC has done exactly what the vice president said it wouldn’t do. Bush’s charge stands. Gore broke his word.