Be careful what you ask for

Posted: Aug 13, 2004 12:00 AM

     WASHINGTON -- You wanted campaign finance reform. You got campaign finance reform. McCain-Feingold promised to take the money out of politics. If you believed that, you deserve what you got.

     And what you got is an avalanche of money into politics this year as George Soros, Democratic big shots and, to a lesser extent, Republican money men (Republicans are slower on the uptake) get into the business of ``independent'' political expenditures.

     All that McCain-Feingold did was make it impossible to give huge personal contributions to political parties. But if you have far more money than you can ever hope to spend, what to do? Buy another Gulfstream V? No. Play an even more important role in politics by bankrolling your very own ``527,'' a tax-code loophole that enables the fat cats to fund their own political advertising so long as they do not ``coordinate'' with the candidate.

     The ads have another restriction. They cannot advocate voting for anyone. I love that part, for two reasons. First, it produces comical scripts that say ``President Bush, friend of Halliburton, likes taking food from the mouths of orphans. If you think that this is not nice, write President Bush and tell him so.'' Of course, the ad buyers mean: ``Vote Kerry.'' But they cannot say so.

     Second, I like the poetic justice. The goo-goo do-gooders who endorsed campaign finance reform have another great cause: the awfulness of negative campaigning. Well, they have produced a system now that is practically designed to produce negative ads.

           So first you get Soros-funded Bush-the-monster ads. Now you get the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad (and book) accusing Kerry of falsifying his military record.

     The Democrats have reacted to the Swift boat vets with anguished and selective indignation. This assault was bankrolled by rich Bush supporters, they charge. No kidding. Where else would Swift boat vets get the money? With the exception of the romantic few who serially marry millionaire heiresses, Swift boaters are generally of modest means. Where are they going to get the cash to be heard? Harold Ickes?

     The Democrats next charge that the very idea of attacking the military service of a heroic American is disgraceful. On this there are two points. The ``heroic'' part is precisely what is at issue here, and the Swift boat veterans who themselves served honorably have some questions about it.

     More importantly, who brought up Kerry's military record in the first place? If Kerry had not made his Vietnam service the very centerpiece of his campaign -- ``I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty" -- this attack on his record could more justly be deemed scurrilous mud-raking. But if you run as a war hero, your claims of heroism are fair game.

     These vets have the perfect right to publish their book and do their ad. But are they right? Did Kerry rescue Jim Rassmann under fire, as Rassmann recalls, or in perfect calm, as a vet on a nearby Swift boat recalls? We don't know. We can never know. I have no doubt of the sincerity of both recollections, but in the fog of war, as anyone who has read any military history knows, there are wildly varying recollections of what actually happens at the front.

     Politically, though, I think the whole Swift boat campaign is not very smart. It focuses attention on Kerry's one strong point. The man has nothing to say about his next 30 years. His own emphasis on his Vietnam days is a brilliant distraction from his mediocre Senate career and his unbroken string of misjudgments about the national security requirements of the United States: supporting the idiotic nuclear freeze, opposing crucial Pershing II deployments in Europe, opposing support for the Nicaraguan anti-communist insurgency, voting against the first Gulf War, trying to cut post-Cold War intelligence funding. The list is long.

     The Swift boat campaign will not affect swing voters. People will believe what they believe about Kerry at war based on what they previously thought about Kerry. But by drawing attention to Kerry's service, the anti-Kerry vets are playing precisely into his strong suit. If the issue becomes which of the two candidates went to the front in the Vietnam War, Kerry wins.

     I think that in deciding who is the better leader for the country today, the issue is an irrelevance and the argument a distraction. No matter. Under the law, George Bush cannot tell the Swift boat vets to stop even if he wanted to. That's campaign finance reform -- the panacea that took the money out of politics, remember?