The thunder in the distance signals an approaching storm that will deluge Campaign 2000 with political money. In every category--hard money, soft money, political action committee donations, independent expenditures, issue advertising--the presidential, House and Senate candidates and the two national parties are set to shatter all records.
But the story is more than one of numbers. Though the old system was awash in special-interest money and contributions from a tiny elite of wealthy individuals, it was at least modestly regulated by the Federal Election Commission. But 2000's hurricane will finally sweep that regulatory apparatus away. What's left will be a freewheeling, free-market political system in which politicians and parties are bought and sold by America's ruling class.
Survey the landscape. The FEC, long crippled and in failing health, is powerless. The courts, ever more sympathetic to the arguments of campaign lawyers, have handed down a series of rulings eviscerating campaign finance laws and regulations. The Justice Department has adopted a hands-off policy. Congress, while murmuring about reform, has no intention of doing anything. The two leading Republican presidential candidates have bypassed the FEC's system of spending limits and matching funds. And President Clinton, who squandered his only chance to strengthen the tottering edifice of campaign finance laws in 1993-94, when he refused to press the Democrat-controlled Congress to enact reforms, has long since abandoned the cause.
What's new for 2000 is the harmonic convergence of two previously separate loopholes: soft money, the unregulated cash that's been growing exponentially since the late eighties, and issue advocacy, the unregulated campaign ads that played an important role in the 1996 presidential year. It's the merger of these two, with both major parties likely to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in soft money for issue ads touting their candidates and disparaging their opponents, that promises to make 2000 the Goliath of all money-in-politics years. "This will be the first election since the establishment of the FEC in which there are no rules and no limits," says Ellen Miller, executive director of Public Campaign.
Optimists hope the public will be so horrified by the current election cycle's abuses that it will demand reform. Yet those same optimists, most of whom are members of the campaign finance reform fraternity--Common Cause, Public Campaign, Public Citizen, US PIRG, the League of Women Voters and Democracy 21--and most of whom hark back to the post-Watergate reforms of the mid-seventies that strengthened the then-fledgling FEC, thought 1996 would have the same effect. The avalanche of soft money in '96, the White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom one-night stands, Roger Tamraz's donations aimed at winning government help for oil concessions in the Caspian and the hubbub over China's alleged influence-buying was enough to create momentum for change, they thought. But it wasn't.
Whether money in politics will even be a big issue in the 2000 presidential campaign is questionable. Arizona Republican contender John McCain, chief Senate sponsor of a modest but useful reform bill, is trying to make campaign finance reform a showpiece of his own campaign, but this hasn't caught fire. (The Senate was to begin debate on campaign finance reform by October 5.) Gore supports the same modest reforms but has refrained from raising the issue aggressively and won't back public financing--and in so doing, Gore has given rival Bill Bradley, the former Senator from New Jersey, an opening to position himself as a campaign reform advocate. Both Gore and Bradley, meanwhile, are zealously courting big-dollar donors from the corporate world. Texas Governor George W. Bush, the fundraising champion, is vulnerable on the issue and recently has tried to deflect it by proposing changes. But his reforms either do little or could make the problem worse: He supports banning soft money from business and labor but not from individuals, and he wants to raise the limits on hard-money campaign contributions that have been in place since the seventies. Some hope that one or more of the possible fringe candidates, like Jesse Ventura or Warren Beatty, will try to make money in politics an issue, but it's unlikely that any of them could have an impact.