There was a tactical cleverness to Rick Lazio’s proposal, finally agreed to by Hillary Rodham Clinton last month, to ban both soft money and third-party expenditures from this year’s New York Senate campaign. It meant that Mrs. Clinton, whose candidacy has long wallowed in warm, enveloping seas of soft money (rising in direct proportion to the occupancy rate of the Lincoln Bedroom), had to immerse herself in the workaday world of hard money fund-raising. It meant that her soft-money ads pummeling Rick Lazio, particularly in traditionally Republican upstate New York, had to come off the air. And it freed Mr. Lazio from the time-consuming practice of catch-up fund-raising to stick to the hustings. With a decisive edge in hard money (campaign contributions limited to $2,000 per donor), the Lazio campaign has been able to debut a series of hard-money ads that hit the highlights of his congressional career.
As a chess move, the soft-money ban looks like good strategy for Mr. Lazio, who trails the first lady in the polls. Its ultimate effectiveness, of course, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the agreement itself has emerged as one of the most contentious issues in the race. When during their debate Mrs. Clinton accused Mr. Lazio’s campaign of having “violated the very simple agreement that we entered into,” she was referring to a Lazio commercial paid for in part by hard money from the Republican National committee. Did this infusion of hard RNC cash violate the ban, as Mrs. Clinton claimed?
Mr. Lazio and his top advisers including Mike Murphy, who served as John McCain’s chief strategist emphatically insist that the unwritten agreement reached privately between the two camps allowed for both candidates to make use of such hard money, known as “coordinated expenditures,” from the two national parties. Indeed, Mr. Murphy has charged that the Clinton campaign not only agreed to this exception, but was actually aware and acceptant of the party-financed commercial in question until, that is, Mrs. Clinton saw an opportunity to harvest some political hay.
Mrs. Clinton flatly denied Mr. Murphy’s accusation. “But Mrs. Clinton’s aides,” the New York Times reported (at the end of the story), “later acknowledged that some people in her campaign had in fact known about the Republican National Committee sponsorship of the commercials earlier last week … [but] Mrs. Clinton was not aware of that when she spoke.”
Far be it for anyone to doubt the first lady’s aides, particularly when it comes to campaign fund-raising. But surely by debate time Mrs. Clinton must have known that she had misspoken. Did that stop her from committing one of those notorious crimes of Clintonian chutzpah? After stating that “we need to change the system of campaign financing,” after accusing Mr. Lazio’s campaign of violating its own agreement, she said, “You know, last month, Mr. Lazio said that this was an issue of trust and character. He was right. And if New Yorkers can’t trust him to keep his word for ten days, how can they trust him for six years on issues like Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs and education?”
The spectacle of Hillary Rodham Clinton whose campaign still refuses to divulge the dates of White House/Camp David fund-raising sleepovers (fund-overs?) because, presumably, so many occurred when the first lady was away lecturing the American people on trust, character and campaign fund-raising is tough to take. “Please,” said Mr. Lazio crisply. “No lectures from Motel 1600 on campaign-finance reform.”
Now, there’s a campaign ban everyone should agree on.