- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004

As Harold Ickes (the former deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House), Ellen Malcolm of EMILY’s List and several labor leaders drive cash-laden bulldozers through McCain-Feingold loopholes, conservative businessmen blissfully observe the wreckage as their worst fear comes ever closer to realization: A trial lawyer could soon be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Under a growing avalanche of hundreds of millions of dollars in left-wing cash that the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law has done nothing to abate, the “law of unintended consequences” threatens President Bush’s re-election bid.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. And until Republicans and their conservative financiers inexplicably decided on unilateral surrender, it didn’t have to be.

Following the 2002 elections, McCain-Feingold prohibited national political parties from raising unlimited, unregulated soft-money contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions. During the four years preceding the 2002 elections, each party raised about $500 million in soft money.

In the supposed new world created by McCain-Feingold, Republican committees expected to capitalize on their historical advantage in raising limited, regulated hard-money contributions from individuals. (Hard-money contributions from political action committees generally have been evenly divided between congressional candidates of both parties.) Democrats, on the other hand, began looking for a soft-money loophole. They quickly found a gigantic one in the ostensibly independent 527 organizations, which are named after the section in the IRS code that governs them. While the Republican soft-money spigot was essentially turned off, Democrats simply diverted their soft-money flow to the 527s.

What about the 527s’ required independence? During the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Ickes, a delegate at the convention who controls an ad-buying 527 called the Media Fund, and the president of EMILY’s list, who oversees the fund-raising for another 527 behemoth known as America Coming Together (ACT), were trolling for dollars in a suite on the second floor of Boston’s Four Seasons hotel. Several doors away was the suite for the Democratic Party’s finance committee, where its big donors collected their passes each day to the convention’s most coveted parties. Asked about the propriety of the proximity of the Media Fund and ACT to the party’s finance-committee operations, Mr. Ickes told the New York Times, “To quote Willie Sutton: ‘You rob banks because that’s where the money is.’ ”

According to David Broder of The Washington Post, Mr. Ickes boasts that ACT has raised a phenomenal $85 million so far and expects to raise an additional $45 million by November to finance get-out-the-vote activities for John Kerry and other Democrats. Meanwhile, the Media Fund has been spending tens of millions of dollars bankrolling issue ads supporting Mr. Kerry and attacking Mr. Bush. A survey recently conducted by the Cook Political Report revealed that the Media Fund, the AFL-CIO and MoveOn.org. are “blanketing the airwaves” with pro-Kerry and anti-Bush ads in 18 states.

We repeat: It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Last year, as in 1999-2000, Mr. Bush was the undisputed champion on the fund-raising circuit. His 2003 success was partly due to the fact that McCain-Feingold had doubled the maximum contribution an individual could give a federal candidate from to $2,000 per election. Mr. Bush raised $133 million by the end of 2003, more than double the record $66 million he had raised by the end of 1999. So, he was expected to easily surpass his goal of raising $200 million before the Republican convention. Indeed, by the end of June, the Bush-Cheney re-election committee had raised $228 million.

Conventional wisdom prevalent during last summer held that flush Bush coffers would greet an impoverished, battle-scarred Democratic nominee in March of this year. As early as last fall, however, as Harold Ickes and Ellen Malcolm were aggressively implementing their 527 gambit, that conventional wisdom should have been demolished.

As the Bush-Cheney campaign blissfully pursued its fund-raising record, the campaign-finance world was turned on its head — more than once, in fact. By late fall, conventional wisdom had buried the cash-strapped candidacy of Mr. Kerry, who was forced to mortgage his Boston mansion to keep his Iowa chances alive. Meanwhile, Howard Dean had become the Democratic front-runner. On his way to raising a Democratic-record-shattering $41 million by the end of the year, in November Mr. Dean renounced matching funds for the Democratic primaries and boldly pledged to raise a total of $200 million by the Democratic convention. That should have prompted a Bush-Cheney wake-up call.

Lending his campaign more than $6 million, Mr. Kerry also rejected matching funds. His political fortunes were miraculously resurrected on Jan. 19, when he clobbered his fellow Democrats in the Iowa caucuses. His political momentum proved to be unstoppable, and Mr. Kerry locked up the Democratic nomination on March 2. Then his fund-raising began to soar. In March alone, Mr. Kerry raised $44.3 million, nearly $20 million more than the Bush-Cheney campaign raised. During the April-June quarter, Mr. Kerry raised more than $100 million, compared to the $42 million raised by Bush-Cheney. Buttressed by a 527 advantage that could plausibly exceed $200 million, the financial juggernaut built for the benefit of Mr. Kerry and the Democratic Party threatens to overwhelm their Republican foes.

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