Shame on Bill and Al; shame on us

I was lolling around in bed the other morning, basking in the quiet moments before the day began, when the phone interrupted my peace.
“Krisie! What do you think of your Bill Clinton now?” thundered the voice of Boyfriend’s dad through the line. A staunch Republican, he was delighting in the revelations that big-time Democratic donors were rewarded with overnight stays in the White House.
“Wull, golly, ah didn’t do anything wrong! The Lincoln bedroom was never sold!” he mocked in a voice that sounded suspiciously more like an imitation of Rush Limbaugh imitating Clinton than an imitation of the president himself.
In my groggy, unguarded state I said, “Well, it’s not good but it’s not like he’s the first. …”
“Oh, sure!’Everyone does it!’ That’s no excuse. If everyone jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge would you do it, too?” (Huh?)
“You know,” he taunted, “I’ll really have a lot of respect for you the day you write a column with the headline ‘Shame, shame, Bill and Al — shame!'”
Foiled again by Rush and his minions. And it wasn’t even noon yet. Damn.
What an embarrassing time to be, as some call me, a flaming liberal. (Not that I even supported Clinton in ’96, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference. Besides, I suppose voting for Ralph Nader doesn’t put me any closer to the middle.)
Now, I’m not going to defend the antics of Clinton and Gore. But I’m also not going to pretend they’re the only ones bending or breaking the rules.
Sure, the Democrats accidentally accepted $20,000 from a drug smuggler and invited him to a Christmas party hosted by Hillary Clinton. (Hey, they gave the money back!) And, yes, the president had coffee at the White House with campaign donors.
But is that really worse than Bob Dole holding up a budget bill in the Senate so he could go on a tirade against Cuba and Costa Rica because of their restrictive banana-trading policies? Since when did Dole start caring so much about bananas? Sure, they’re loaded with potassium, but come on. Could it have had anything to do with the fact that one of the biggest contributors to the Republican Party is Carl Lindner, the multi-millionaire who runs Chiquita? And could Dole’s use of Lindner’s jet to travel to campaign stops have had anything to do with it?
Sure, Gore attended a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in California and called it community outreach. But what about the little matter of a $300,000 fine slapped on Newt Gingrich after he lied to Congress about his tax-exempt political projects? (Actually, people who lie to Congress are supposed to go to prison, but I guess when you’re actually a member yourself it’s not such a big deal.)
Gore made illegal/tacky (depending on whom you ask) fund-raising calls from his White House office. How about that Dan Burton, the Republican who’s leading the House investigation into (Democrats’) violations of federal campaign finance laws? He’s accused not only of shunning a lobbyist who didn’t collect enough campaign funds for him, but of also making fund-raising calls from his own office.
Am I implying that two wrongs make a right? Absolutely not. I’m saying a rotten system leads to improper, if not illegal, practices. Their behavior is part of a bigger problem and trying to solve it by condemning specific actions is like trying to use a cotton ball to stop the Red River from flooding.
In light of recent allegations, many Congress members are falling all over themselves to show that they follow the rules and are above reproach. Our own Republican senator, Rod Grams, points out that he has never made a fund-raising call from his office; instead, he walks over to the National Republican Senatorial Committee to use the phone.
But does that really make a difference?
The juiciest source of campaign money is not folks like you and me who send in checks to candidates we really believe in. It’s political action committees that are giving all the cash, and they do it for one reason: to gain leverage on politicians. So who cares where the calls were made? The point is, these drawn-out, fanfare-filled, dirty laundry-airing campaigns cost a fortune and make politicians basically trade their time and possibly their votes for big donations.
So, why doesn’t someone just change the system? For example, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could convince candidates to voluntarily limit campaign spending? (It has to be voluntary because in 1976 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that money equals free speech, which, of course means rich people have more of a right to free speech than average folks.)
And maybe if candidates raised at least 60 percent of their money within their home states, they could get free TV time and discounted postal rates. Then we could reduce or even ban PAC contributions and ban “soft money” contributions that are used largely to fund “issue ads.” These ads never specifically mention an election, but simply rip on a candidate and usually conclude with, “So call Politician X and tell him to stop letting drug dealers and murderers roam the streets.”
Well, as luck would have it, there’s just such a proposal in Congress right now. But does the McCain-Feingold bill stand a chance? Yeah, right. The only Minnesota members who support it, according to the Star Tribune, are Democrats Paul Wellstone, Bill Luther, David Minge and Bruce Vento.
Republican Gil Gutknecht and Democrats Martin Sabo and Collin Peterson want to ban soft money but not PAC donations. Democrat Jim Oberstar wants reforms on soft money and he opposes a ban on PACs. Republican Jim Ramstad wants to ban both but doesn’t favor any public financing. Rod Grams has “reservations” about McCain-Feingold and doesn’t want to ban soft money and isn’t sure how he feels about PACs.
What a mess — and that’s just in one state. Imagine trying to get a majority of members in the House and Senate to agree on a plan.
And that’s the beauty of it — from the politicians’ point of view. All of them say they want to fix things, but then claim they aren’t totally happy with whatever bill happens to be in front of them and they find a reason to vote against it. The ones that really get me are the politicians who say the measures don’t go far enough, so they’re not worth voting for. As if stronger measures have any chance of passage. It’s just a clever way to support the status quo.
So, yes, shame on Bill and Al. And shame on the Republicans for their abuses of power. But most of all, shame on us for reelecting them over and over.
Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected].umn.edu
Letters to the editor should be sent to [email protected]