That Squishing Noise Is the Sound of Soft Money

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It's no secret that soft money has flooded the American political process. But only now has the extent of the deluge emerged in clear relief: According to a report released Wednesday by New York University's Brennan Center, the unregulated funds, which corporations and other wealthy donors filter into campaigns via the political parties, are surging to record levels. For the first time, party expenditures are outpacing spending by the campaigns themselves.

This election year, despite all the negative rhetoric directed at soft money, the parties are not only knee-deep in the stuff, they're spending it with abandon. The Brennan Center study reveals unprecedented cash flow from party coffers into advertising: Between June 1 and September 20, the parties spent upwards of $52 million on commercials, versus the campaigns, which paid around $21 million for ads.

The trend has political scientists and civic activists complaining like never before: Campaign finance laws, such as they are, exist to curtail the political influence of individual donors and interest groups by limiting campaign contributions to $2,000. Under existing legislation, however, those same donors can funnel unlimited funds into the Republican or Democratic parties, which in turn use the cash to buy campaign advertisements.

The Brennan report comes at a moment when many voters are particularly tuned in to the issue. In the U.S. Senate race between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio, soft money took center stage last week, when the candidates signed an agreement to stop accepting any unregulated contributions. And this week, campaign finance dogmatists Sens. Russ Feingold and John McCain challenged Gore and Bush to follow suit. Gore, who's seen by many as the ultimate master of dubious fund-raising practices, managed to simultaneously accept the challenge and take a swipe at his opponent. Bush demurred, saying he didn't think he could trust Gore to follow through on such a promise.

But while Bush can probably play the holier-than-thou card successfully for a while, campaign finance reform is not going away. At this point in the campaign, however, Bush and Gore are highly unlikely to do much more than use the issue as ammunition. But future candidates should remember: Whatever major party candidate takes the first truly compelling step toward changing the soft money system may cripple his party's bank account, but he'll win the respect of the people — witness John McCain. Maybe in 2004.