Frame Game

The DNC “Issue” Ads

Two years ago, Bill Clinton testified under oath that receiving oral sex wasn’t “sexual relations” as he understood the term. This week, his party is extending that logic to campaign-finance law. The Democratic National Committee is spending millions of dollars in unregulated soft money to broadcast an ad that says “the big drug companies” are “using money and lobbyists to stop progress in Washington. Al Gore is taking them on, fighting for a Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors.” As the words “The Gore Plan” appear on the screen, the ad shows Gore saying, “People can’t afford these ridiculously high prices for prescription medicines. When their doctor prescribes medicine for their health and well-being, they ought to be able to take it.”

Ordinary, ignorant laypeople—the sort of people who think oral sex is sex—might mistake this for a Gore campaign ad. But spending soft money on such an ad would be illegal. So instead, the DNC calls it an “issue ad,” which political parties are allowed to fund with soft money. To lend this distinction the illusion of clarity, DNC National Chairman Joe Andrew, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle repeated the word “issue” 87 times at a press conference kicking off the ad campaign this week. But while the Federal Election Commission has tried to draw a bright line between issue ads and campaign ads, the DNC has erased it. In fact, the DNC has one-upped Clinton. Clinton merely redefined sex so that he couldn’t be proved to have broken the law. The DNC has redefined issue ads so that no one can be proved to have broken the law.

Here’s how the FEC defines issue ads. According to its Campaign Guide for Political Party Committees, the FEC ruled in 1995:

that a national party committee could pay for media ads promoting the party’s agenda and its position on legislative issues without the costs being considered contributions or coordinated party expenditures. In reaching this conclusion, the Commission considered the following facts: [1] The proposed communications did not contain an electioneering message; [2] If there was a reference to a federal officeholder who was also a federal candidate, there was no express advocacy of that officeholder’s election or defeat and no reference to federal elections; and [3] The communications did not contain any call for action other than urging the public to contact the mentioned officeholder (if any) and voice support or opposition to the legislation.

Note the key criteria: legislative focus, no coordination, no electioneering message, and no reference to elections. Here’s how Democratic leaders are rewriting these criteria:

1. It’s not a campaign ad even if your candidate is the message. The ad features Gore, shows him speaking in a campaign-style setting, expressly promotes “The Gore Plan,” and never mentions the words “Democrat” or “Democratic.” Why is it OK for an “issue” commercial to focus on Gore? Because he’s the party’s “standard-bearer.” At the DNC press conference, Andrew explained that the ad included “our standard-bearer as part of the message. … It talks about the vice president and his stand on this issue and how, as our standard-bearer, he is pushing it as well.” The party “standard” is a magic wand. As long as the candidate is carrying it, the party can spend soft money on him.

2. It’s not a campaign ad even if it’s biographical. “Clearly, you could have biographical characteristics in an ad,” said Andrew, “and that would still be a party-building and an issue ad.” In the current DNC commercial, he observed, “There’s elements of biography here, when you talk about how somebody has fought for a particular issue. … There are probably 20 to 25 different types of ads that have been under consideration. Whether or not you would define some of those as a bio ad is really very subjective.” So if the next DNC spot alludes to justice or compassion in the course of narrating Gore’s lifelong heroism, who are you to say it’s not an issue ad?

3. It’s not a campaign ad even if the candidate’s staff and consultants help design it. The DNC used Gore’s media advisers to produce its ad. When asked whether Gore’s campaign staff had input as well, Andrew replied, “Of course. There have been, obviously, lots of conversations between me and [Gore campaign chairman] Tony Coelho and [Gore campaign manager] Donna Brazile, [and] a series of consultants, obviously talking about what we should do and how we should do it with the standard-bearer.” There’s that magic wand again. Gore’s consultants can direct the use of soft money on his behalf—heck, they can pocket that soft money—as long as he’s a Democrat. They’re not coordinating to elect Gore. They’re coordinating to elect the party’s standard-bearer.

4. It’s an issue ad even if you hold out no serious hope of passing relevant legislation. “Something tells me, as a result of the extraordinary intransigence that we’ve seen on the Republican side from day one on this issue, that nothing will be done in this Republican-dominated Congress on this issue this year,” Daschle predicted. Then why advertise the issue? There’s only one other plausible answer, and Gephardt gave it: “The key to winning this issue this year—and if we can’t win it this year, to win the election, so that we can finally deal with this issue in a progressive and sensible way—will be about defining where we stand and where Republicans stand.”

5. All issue ads are designed to win the current election. The role of issues, according to the Democratic leaders who spoke at the press conference, is to resolve elections. As Daschle put it, “Elections are about choices. And one of the most important choices the American people are going to be asking and facing in this election will be, who will bring us some resolution to [this] issue?” Gephardt added, “This issue is vital to our candidates to try to win back enough seats in the House for a majority, and I’m sure in the Senate.” This rationale completely annihilates the FEC’s distinction between issue ads and election ads. The DNC commercial is an issue ad because it’s about the election.

6. All party-building ads are designed to win the current election. Under election law, soft money can only be spent on party-building activities. So the DNC equates “party building” with electing Gore. Why is the DNC airing its pro-Gore ad almost exclusively in states that will be battlegrounds in the presidential election? “Party building is about winning elections,” explained Andrew. “If you’re going to have a party-building ad, it certainly should help your party’s nominee for president. … We are going to do everything we can to assist in the effort for him to win the White House. That’s what party building is about, is to make sure that we win offices.”

The DNC’s position, in short, is that every political ad is an issue ad, because politics is about issues. Never before has this scofflaw theory been so brazenly asserted. By dissolving the distinction between hard and soft money, the DNC is eviscerating the caps on campaign contributions. As a journalist, it would be improper for me to tell you how to vote in the presidential election. But there’s only one effective way to punish Gore and the Democrats for their contemptuous treatment of this issue. You know what I mean.