President Bush’s re-election campaign yesterday asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate a liberal advocacy group for airing anti-Bush TV ads the campaign calls illegal.
The ads, which were scheduled to begin airing today in 17 battleground states, are financed in part by Democratic billionaire George Soros, who last year likened the president to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
The complaint was filed last night and accuses the Media Fund, the organization that is running the ads, of violating a ban on the use of “soft money” unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals for federal election activity.
“We believe this is illegal,” Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt said yesterday in an interview. “We believe that the FEC would look at this and say this is a violation” of campaign finance laws.
Media Fund strongly disagreed.
“They are entirely legal,” said Harold Ickes, director of the organization. “We are advised by a battery of legal experts who have no reservations about the legality.”
FEC spokesman Ian Stirton said the commission is in the process of determining whether ads by groups such as Media Fund which are known by their tax-code designation as 527s violate the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and whether they should be regulated before the election.
Media Fund has accepted large contributions from Mr. Soros, who has also given millions to MoveOn.org, another 527 organization that has aired anti-Bush ads. MoveOn.org came under fire in recent months for sponsoring a competition that resulted in several advertisements comparing the president to Hitler.
“We have not taken heat because of it,” Mr. Ickes said of the billionaire’s penchant for Bush-Hitler comparisons.
The Media Fund’s initial buy, worth $5 million, features a 30-second commercial that begins: “President Bush. Remember the American dream?
“It’s about hope, not fear. It’s about more jobs at home, not tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas. It’s about giving our children their chance, not our debt. It’s about providing health care for people, not just profits. It’s about fighting for the middle class, not special interests.”
The ad then declares: “It’s time to take our country back from corporate greed and make America work for every American.”
Larry Noble, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, agreed with the Bush campaign that ads by both MoveOn.org and Media Fund are illegal.
“These groups have stated that their purpose is to defeat President Bush,” he said. “As political committees, they are required to abide by the contribution limits and prohibitions in terms of the money that they take in.”
That would mean 527s could accept only small, tightly regulated “hard money” contributions. Instead, they are taking unlimited “soft money” gifts from Mr. Soros and other wealthy individuals.
Tom Josefiak, general counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign, called the ads an attempt to “use soft money to win a federal election” and circumvent “the recently passed campaign finance laws that all the Democrats, from Senator Kerry and Senator Daschle to Nancy Pelosi, were so sanctimonious about.”
Mr. Holt said that “the issue is the difference between clean, hard, legal dollars being spent by the Bush campaign, versus shadowy Democratic groups that are obviously using soft money that was supposedly outlawed.”
“We would be interested in seeing whether they’ve received any legal opinions or release letters from their lawyers,” he said. “It’s hard to envision somebody doing this without some kind of paper trail.”
But Mr. Ickes said he has no intention of disclosing his group’s legal rationale for the ads, which name Mr. Bush. Future ads will probably name the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
“We feel confident we can name Kerry. It has to be in the context of issues, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Mr. Ickes said. “We think that the Republican lawyers and Ed Gillespie either can’t read the law or are just making it up. I think that they want to divert attention.”
Mr. Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has long questioned the legality of such TV ads. Although Republicans have also formed 527s, Democrats have turned them into major political forces.
“The activity is a lot greater on the Democratic side, in large part because they perceive that they need it to counter Bush’s expected $200 million for a primary where he has no opponent,” said Mr. Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics. “And that money’s all going to be spent attacking Kerry.”
But the first round of Bush campaign ads, which began airing last week, make no mention of Mr. Kerry or the Democratic Party. Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman hinted this week that the Bush ads will be sharpened.
Mr. Ickes, a former aide to President Clinton and the mastermind behind former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s successful Senate bid, was one of many Democratic officials who weathered congressional scrutiny in the campaign fund-raising scandal of 1996.
He helped produce Democratic ads that year and in 2000, and has concluded that the McCain-Feingold law of 2002 does not restrain him from continuing to produce such spots.
“We did that in 1996 and we did that in 2000, and the Congress didn’t change the law,” he said last night. “Congress had debated the McCain-Feingold law. They could have changed the law if they wanted to, in the area that we’re operating under.
“They chose not to,” he said. “We therefore don’t think the FEC has the statutory basis to change the law itself. It has to wait for the Congress to act.”
The FEC has a regulation barring corporations or labor unions from making “any communication expressly advocating the election or defeat of any clearly identified candidate.”
“We are not saying people should vote for or against any candidate. We are talking about the policies of George Bush,” Mr. Ickes said. “These are classic issue ads.”