- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

Think there’s too much money in politics? If so, take the Doonesbury image of the pinstriped lobbyist smoking a fat-cat cigar out of your head and replace him with a flannel shirt, blue jeans and Bruce Springsteen.

It’s very simple. This election season, he and the Vote for Change tour operatives are doing the same thing as the fat cats — helping raise millions of dollars to affect political outcomes in Washington.

Feel any better? Is money cleaner in the hands of artists?

It’s not just the Vote for Change tour, with rock stars such as R.E.M., John Mellencamp, the Dave Matthews Band and Pearl Jam urging swing state voters to boot President Bush from office. It’s the movie business, too.

Actors are lending their names to high-dollar fund-raisers. Ben Affleck has donated his very person to the Kerry campaign. And a sizable donation it is, given what he could be winning at the poker table.

Artist fervor for hard partisan politics was sparked by Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

A cavalcade of anti-Bush/anti-Republican documentaries followed in its wake: “Outfoxed,” “The Hunting of the President,” “The Corporation” and “Bush’s Brain” among them.

Even summer popcorn movies such as “The Manchurian Candidate” are laden with election-year baggage. Speculation about an anti-Bush message embedded in “The Village,” on the other hand, is a stretch.

What’s happening is nothing less than the mutation of the culture industry into a political juggernaut. It’s the 400-pound elephant in your living room. You can’t watch TV or take in a movie or a concert without feeling its weight.

You can’t even go to a Linda Ronstadt concert in Vegas — the desert refuge from our coastal culture nodes — without your “Shut up and sing” stick.

It’s unprecedented. Or at least it feels that way, but my memory could be short.

Michael Franc, a vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, cautions against underestimating the anti-Reagan activism of the ‘80s. “That was every bit as intense,” he says, citing the nuclear freeze movement, AIDS activism and the derision of “cowboy” diplomacy.

Mr. Franc observes that the proliferation of media such as 24-hour cable news and the Internet has given Hollywood actors and rock stars a louder megaphone, making them seem ubiquitous.

Still, the Vote for Change tour — it kicks off Oct. 1 with six concerts in Pennsylvania — seems like an upping of the ante. It is more nakedly political and targeted than celebrity involvement in politics has ever been, short of actual campaigns for office (e.g., Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger), which escape the gray zone of dollar-dialing and propaganda altogether.

The Vote for Change tour virtually invites following the money trail into the thicket of campaign finance law.

If the tour, as “presented” by MoveOn.org, the Berkeley-based online organization, is touted on radio or TV, would that constitute an explicit political advertisement under federal election guidelines, as some charged of ads for “Fahrenheit”?

(The answer is yes.)

Ticket proceeds will go to America Coming Together (ACT), an outfit dedicated to registering voters in swing states. Will those funds be considered political donations?

(Again, yes.)

“This is a protest,” Mr. Mellencamp has said. “It’s a protest about the abuse of what we feel are American values. In this case, it just so happens that, yes, this is a Republican president, and yes, the proceeds will go to efforts to defeat that Republican president.”

Mr. Mellencamp, with those words, you’ve just left the little pink houses of Indiana. You’re now in the byzantine world of hard money, soft money, political action committees and so-called “527s,” those shadowy groups that skirt the intent, if not the letter, of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law.

That high-minded legislation, you’ll recall, was an attempt to close the loophole permitting unregulated “soft money” donations and “issue ads” that tiptoed right up to the water’s edge of endorsing a candidate for office.

America Coming Together, based in Washington, is one such 527. (The name comes from the section of the federal tax code that created them.)

So, are the Vote for Change tour’s proceeds akin to the slush money that bazillionaire George Soros is funneling into the Democratic Party? (The Washington Post has reported that Democrats have benefited from about $70 million in unregulated cash from 527s this year, far outpacing pro-Republican counterparts.)

The scoop, as patiently explained to me by folks on Capitol Hill, is as follows. If you fork over the estimated $75 to see Mr. Springsteen and company, you will have made a “hard money” donation to ACT.

According to an ACT spokeswoman, the money will go into its federal PAC account, which is subject to limits on individual contributions, rather than to its unlimited soft money account. The artists themselves, she added, are fronting the expenses of the tour; MoveOn.org has no financial role.

In short, the tour squares with the letter and spirit of the McCain-Feingold law.

Whew.

We’ve come a long way from Woodstock and Live Aid. At the rate they’re going, rock stars are going to make election lawyers of us all.

More power to them, I suppose. As Neil Young, a no-show in the Vote for Change lineup, once put it, “Keep on rockin’ in the free world.”

Would that the rest of the Democratic money machine was so scrupulous.


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