Posted on November 04, 1996 in Washington Watch

The costliest, meanest, and in some ways most important election in recent U.S. history is over.

Over $1.6 billion was spent by both parties on behalf of the campaigns for President, 34 Senate seats and 435 Congressional seats nationwide.

The overwhelming majority of the money spent was what is called “soft money” and “independent expenditures”—money that was raised and spent outside the strict limits placed on campaign finance by federal election laws.

While federal law limits contributions to candidates to $1,000.00 per individual, and $5,000.00 per political action committee, no limits are placed on the money that is spent by the political parties or interest groups seeking to influence an election. As a result of these “loopholes” huge amounts of money are now entering the political process.

Interest groups like organized labor unions, the National Rifle Association, Trial Lawyers, and major businesses have independently spent hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising campaigns designed to swing voters for or against candidates who took positions favorable or unfavorable to issues that effect their interests.

Hundreds of millions were also contributed by those groups or by individuals affiliated with those groups to the political parties or directly to the candidates’ campaign funds.

Over twenty companies and unions spent more than $1 million each this election year, several spent over $2 million each.

While considerable attention has been focused recently on some questionable contributions made to the Democratic Party by some companies and individuals linked to Asian countries, both parties have taken advantage of these “loopholes” and have engaged in practices that, while not illegal, are not in keeping with the spirit and intent of the election law.

The public has been outraged and there are calls for new reforms in campaign finance laws. This is not the first time that the public has been concerned about the role of big money in politics—and it won’t be the last. There are several reasons why it will remain difficult to pass new campaign finance reforms.

The most significant obstacle is the fact that those who will be called on to make the reforms are those who benefit from the current system. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and in the political parties are hesitant to make serious reforms since they fear losing the advantages provided by the current system.

No real alternative has been found to the current system and therefore, political leaders faced with the skyrocketing cost of campaigns (paying for media time, hiring consultants, and organizing campaigns) fear losing a major source of funds that are necessary to run modern political campaigns.

If big money effected this year’s campaign so did the meanness of the campaign itself. For two years now Republicans have engaged in an assault against the President, First Lady, and White House personnel charging them with a variety of offenses. Two years of hearings and investigation have not yet produced charges—but those accusations found their way into the campaign. Senator Dole and other Republican spokespeople have termed the White House was termed “the most corrupt,” and the President has been accused of “lying” and “demeaning the office of the President.” These charges have influenced voters and they have marred the political process. They have increased public disillusionment and distrust—already a serious problem in U.S. politics.

This phenomenon of angry voters and voter alienation has, for years, been a disturbing trend in U.S. politics. It not only did not end with the election of 1996, it may have grown.

Amidst the mean-spirited attacks and the flooding of the system with big money there were critical decisions that faced U.S. voters in 1996. The definition and role of government, the role of the U.S. in the post-cold war era—were the subject of intense debate in Presidential and Congressional races.

Clearly framed at the two conventions, voters were presented with two strikingly opposing visions by the Democrats and the Republicans.

Republicans, adhering to the maxim that “the best government is less government,” made a determined effort to convince voters that by cutting taxes and slashing government social programs and regulation they could restore personal freedom and create an idyllic America where individual initiative and private entrepreneurs would reign and solve most of our nagging social problems. Republicans hoped that with a conservative Republican Congress and President they could usher in such a revolution, completing the work begun by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s.

Democrats countered, reminding voters that the Republican revolution produced the huge deficits that currently plague the nation’s economy and that the reforms that the Republicans seek to enact are primarily those which provide for the privileged class not for the most vulnerable members of society: the elderly, the young, the poor, the jobless, and the ill. The regulations that Republicans want to remove, Democrats have noted, are those which protect against pollution, unsafe consumer products, and unsafe work conditions.

Democrats have stressed that while government could be trimmed, it remains necessary to protect the common good, to build community, and to provide opportunity for those who need assistance.

The Republican emphasis on individualism and chauvinism has also led to tendencies toward isolation or rejection of multinational cooperation. Democrats have countered with an explanation of the role of the United Nations and the need for positive U.S. engagement in world affairs. At times this debate has also become mean-spirited with both Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole personally attacking U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali—emphasizing the “foreignness” of his name to make the point that America should not be controlled by outside parties. While the President during the campaign bent to the Republican demand to reject a second term for Mr. Ghali, the President has continued to assert the political role of the U.N. and international cooperation.

In the highly charged partisan climate of 1996, the pull of third party independent politics lost its attraction due to growing public distrust of megalomaniac billionaire Ross Perot. The reform mood will resurface in coming years but it will require a new credible leadership and a clearly defined alternative issue agenda to succeed.

The election may be over but the issues and problems of 1996 will continue shape the political debate. There will continue to be a push for campaign reform. The public has been shocked by the $1.6 billion raised throughout the course of this election and the role that big contributors play in U.S. politics. The sharp political division on the future of the U.S. and its role in the world will continue to frame both the public debates and the struggle between Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House.

The meanness of 1996 will tragically also continue to play itself out in Congressional battles and in the public’s political discourse. To a great extent, however, this penchant for personal attacks and the drive to discredit individuals in government will cloud over the more serious issues that must be discussed and continue to further erode public confidence in government and political leadership.

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