A Tale of Two Approaches

Posted: Sep 03, 2004 12:00 AM

 In his poem ?The Road Not Taken,? Robert Frost notes it?s often difficult to know what?s right and what?s wrong. But the opposite is also true -- sometimes it?s crystal clear. And more?s the pity when someone knows what?s right, and still takes the wrong path.  
Consider campaign finance reform.

 President Bush?s re-election campaign announced on Aug. 26 that it would go to court ?to shut down all the ads and activity by these shadowy 527 groups.? Those, of course, are the political advocacy groups named for a section of the tax code. But Bush himself is partly responsible for the influence of these groups.

They became important after passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and have overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates. As of Aug. 30, Democratic 527s had raked in $131 million, compared with $17 million for Republican 527s.

 The group ?Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? that has been hammering John Kerry is a 527, as are moveon.org, Americans Coming Together and other groups that have created equally nasty ads about the president.

 The president wants to rein in these groups. Yet Bush could have avoided all this trouble if he?d done the right thing.

Back in 2000, candidate George W. Bush opposed McCain-Feingold. He insisted then that he wanted to protect every individual?s right to take part in democracy. He said he?d do that by increasing the limit on how much people could give to candidates and national parties. Bush also insisted he wanted to maintain strong political parties. He made it clear that no reform should favor one party over another or favor incumbents over challengers.

So why, in March 2002, did he sign McCain-Feingold?

Even as he put pen to paper, Bush realized he was making a mistake. This bill ?goes farther than I originally proposed by preventing all individuals, not just unions and corporations, from making donations to political parties in connection with federal elections,? he told reporters. In other words, it limited the right of individuals to take part in the democratic process. And it certainly limited the power of the political parties.

That?s where 527 groups come in -- money that once went to the Republican or Democratic national parties was instead funneled to them. And, as a sad coincidence, these groups are more willing than the major parties would be to sponsor negative ads.

Think about it this way: A party needs to attract majority support nationwide. Negative ads won?t do that. But a 527 is concerned only with raising enough cash to pay for its ads. You can do that with just a few hundred people. So while McCain-Feingold was supposed to take the purported ?corruption? out of politics, what it really did was force money away from pluralistic parties and into negative ads.

Now Bush is trying to make a bad situation worse, by suing those who engage in political speech. Imagine if he?d just taken the correct road and vetoed McCain-Feingold. He could then have pushed for a system that allowed anyone to give any amount of money to any candidate. After all, wealthy financier George Soros has proven that if someone wants to give tens of millions to support a candidate, he?ll find a way. As long as those donations are instantly disclosed on the Internet, they ought to be allowed. If the First Amendment protects anything, it ought to protect the right of individuals to engage in political speech.

Internationally, we also recently saw the importance of doing what?s right.  Last week Iraq?s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani negotiated a deal to end fighting in Najaf. Sistani apparently arose from his hospital bed in London to fly home and bring peace. Sadly, he was late in coming to the right road.

The ailing Sistani could probably have prevented the entire standoff (which resulted in the destruction of most of the city) if he?d stood up to radical cleric Moqtada Sadr weeks earlier. And he could certainly have smoothed the American occupation of Iraq if he?d worked with administrator Paul Bremer last year, instead of refusing to even meet with him.

Like Bush with 527 groups, Sistani gave influence to Sadr. Because Sistani wouldn?t cooperate with the occupiers and work for peace, Sadr was free to preach opposition to them and to sow violence.

Now Sistani is home, and his power is assured. But he?s an ailing man. Unless he does what?s right and replaces Sadr, the radical cleric may well replace him when Sistani dies.

Frost?s poem about paths ends, ?I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.? It?ll be interesting to see if, in the future, Bush and Sistani will take that correct path first, without waiting for a crisis to force their hands. It might make all the difference.