George W. Bush’s Seasonal Ethics

George W. Bush cast himself as a principled politician this week when his campaign quashed a deceptive Republican National Committee attack ad that took a comment from a 1994 Gore interview completely out of context. The ad made Gore sound as if he were defending Clinton’s truthfulness during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, even though the interview aired before Clinton even met Lewinsky. This morning, Bush took personal credit in the New York Times for stepping in and telling the RNC to yank the ad.

But it appears Bush’s campaign ethics are seasonal. During the New York primary, a group known as Republicans for Clean Air waged a $2 million ad campaign attacking John McCain’s environmental record with an ad that the New York Times said had “flaws in every claim.” On March 5, two days before Super Tuesday, Bush refused to repudiate the ad, telling CBS’s Face the Nation:

People have the right to run ads. They have the right to do what they want to do, under the–under the First Amendment in America.

Bush was saying that Republicans for Clean Air was an independent group that was not under his control. And he’s right, of course. Technically, campaigns cannot coordinate their advertising with independent groups or political parties. But in reality campaigns give these groups advice and then rely on the legalism that the groups don’t have to listen to them.

Bush knows this full well. Why couldn’t he just call the group and tell them to pull the deceptive ad? Let’s go to the Face the Nation tape again:

Because these are independent expenditures. I don’t–I don’t want to–you–you–you know, you say, ‘Are they coordinated?’ Why should I pick up the phone and coordinate with [Republicans for Clean Air] to get them down?

Now Bush has changed his tune. His campaign says not only is it OK to give “input” to the RNC about an issue ad, but also that it’s something to be proud of. “This is not an independent expenditure the way that third-party expenditures are independent,” said Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan. “Both in terms of the law and in terms of public perception, there’s a significant difference between political parties and third-party groups.”

In terms of public perception, sure. But campaign-finance law makes no “significant” distinction between an issue ad produced by an independent group like Republicans for Clean Air (which turned out to be a front for Texas billionaire Sam Wyly) and an issue ad produced by a national political committee (like the RNC). The Federal Election Commission doesn’t seem to think there’s a difference, and neither do legal experts. “I don’t understand why the line would be drawn there, and I haven’t seen any cases that tried to draw the line exactly where you’re drawing it,” said Samuel Issacharoff, a Columbia law school professor who specializes in law governing the political process.

Of course, the real reason Bush spiked the Gore ad and ignored the McCain ad is because of a political distinction between the two ads, not a legal one. The Republicans for Clean Air ad hammered McCain at a critical moment in the New York primary and helped Bush win the Republican nomination. The RNC ad was so ham-fisted it would have backfired on Bush.

In trying to make a liar out of Gore, the RNC made a liar out of Bush. Bush told Face the Nation, “I don’t think these [Republicans for Clean Air] ads are particularly helpful to me.” Of course they were helpful. Otherwise Bush would have called the group and told them to call off the dogs. Just as he told the RNC.