The corollary is always the same: "If only we could spend enough dough on television telling the American people how great I am, all our troubles would be over." That's why the Democratic National Committee decided last week to pump $25 million of soft money into an ad blitz.
This involved breaking a promise. As we noted in "Hill of Beans" a few weeks ago, Gore, in a moment of extreme moral self-aggrandizement last March, made a boneheaded vow not to spend Democratic Party money on the presidential campaign, as long as the Republicans did the same. His language was very specific: "I will take the first step by requesting the Democratic National Committee not to run any issue ads paid for by soft money unless and until the Republican party uses money for advertising." And if Republicans joined Gore in his bold effort, they could "change politics forever."
Oops. The Republican Party, with its massive advantage in hard money, said fine. So, exactly as we predicted here a few weeks ago, the Gore campaign claimed to have discovered that Republicans had broken the deal in principle through what Democrats variously described as a "stealth campaign" or a "soft money sneak attack." Yeah?so stealthy, so sneaky, that neither the Republicans nor any of the groups that monitor such attacks had the slightest idea what the Democrats were talking about.
According to DNC chair Joe Andrew, a few independent conservative groups ran ads in California. That's kinda sorta like soft money, in a way. Andrew also reconstrued Gore's promise as a "challenge" (just as Gore seems to be reconstruing his failed programs as "goals"). Said Andrew: "The challenge was broken the day after Al Gore made it by the Republicans, because they've refused to simply ask Denny Hastert or Trent Lott to pass the legislation before Congress that would require disclosure of who is funding these stealth campaigns, and they've refused to ask the Republicans on the Federal Election Commission to rule on John McCain and Steve Forbes's complaints." Oh, I see.
Iron Jon But Gore's unshakable faith in the power of money is not misplaced. Something did happen last week that could "change the face of American politics forever." I'm referring to the victory of political novice Jon Corzine in the New Jersey Democratic Senate primary. Corzine, a former executive at Goldman Sachs, spent $35 million of his own money, almost all of it on television, and gave party hack and ex-Gov. Jim Florio a 16-point trouncing.
What makes the result noteworthy is that it has long been an axiom in American politics that you can't win a political campaign?any more than you can win a war?on air power alone. Corzine's media adviser Bob Shrum is a genius at tv, but even he had spent $40 million trying to get Al Checchi nominated for governor of California, and couldn't move him past a weak second-place finish. California is a state where such campaigns are the rule. New Jersey, by contrast, was always held to be the state?not "one of the states" but the state?in which a television campaign was most futile. The reason is that most of the state is reached by New York and Philadelphia stations. (It is the last state in the union to have no network tv station.) So spending money on mass media means wasting most of it on New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware markets, where people aren't allowed to vote for you.
Corzine changed that. His attitude was, well, let's waste a lot of money, then. There's more where that came from. So there's a new rule: Give us Bob Shrum and $35 million and we can elect last night's pot roast. We're in the world Alan Ehrenhalt warned of in The United States of Ambition, where one ambitious guy with a lot of bucks behind him can outgun either of the two major parties. That's not, of course, the way Jon Corzine sees it. According to Corzine, the people of New Jersey elected him for his ideas, not his money. Yeah, right. This is as touching as the high school girl's confident "He loves me for my brains, not my body," and just about as believable.
The big change is that we've witnessed the growth of a whole class of people big enough to buy its way into politics. Ross Perot was looked upon as an anomaly when he used his millions to gin up a run for president in 1992, but today there are probably 100,000 Ross Perots in this country. The Democrats' Senate candidates increasingly come from this class.
It's unlikely most of them will be finance executives. More probably, they'll resemble North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who made his 25 million as a trial lawyer. Trial lawyers are the Democratic Party's biggest contributors, and the party repays the favor by helping create a favorable litigating climate, and even breeding such golden-egg-laying geese as the various state tobacco agreements. But they're increasingly coming to the conclusion that there's no reason to bribe the party when you can run it yourself.
Typical of the new lawyer/candidate class is Minnesota's Michael Ciresi, who's seeking the Democrat/Farm/Labor nomination for Senate. Ciresi's law firm got 400 million of Minnesota's tobacco money. Why? Because then-state Attorney General Skip Humphrey (Hubert's son) said it should. We seem to be arriving at a situation in which it is the government itself that puts up candidates.
I Can Hold It! Sometimes I think New Mexico has the oddest politics in the country. Not the most extreme, but the oddest. They have a Republican governor, Gary Johnson, who favors legalization of drugs. And last summer, this column reported from Santa Fe on the arrest of four teenagers for playing an illegal game of hackysack on the town plaza.
This week, Albuquerque City Council-man Mike McEntee was under fire for his measure to save the city $50,000 by terminating the lease on the city's public restrooms. "It's not the government's job to make sure people have a place to pee in a shopping center," says McEntee. "I don't buy into the argument that people won't go to Old Town because there's not a bathroom."
Perhaps because I'm so reflexively libertarian, I can't quite put my finger on what bugs me about this. Anytime someone begins a sentence with, "It's not the government's job to..." I tend to interrupt him with a shout of, "Right on!" before he can even finish. There are certain things that are the government's job, and McEntee's pronouncement has the ring of It's not the government's job to issue currency! or It's not the government's job to defend the country against invasion! or It's not the government's job to maintain public order! If you're not going to have bathrooms, then change the laws to let people go against the back walls of buildings, the way they do in Central America.