Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc Oct 17, 1997
Some of us owe Bob Dole an apology. Here we've been holding the Kansan responsible for losing to President Clinton. But we now know the election was lost even before Mr. Dole had entered the first Republican primary.
This is what the Senate and media probes have taught us about fund raising in the 1996 campaign. We now know why Mr. Clinton was willing to risk breaking campaign laws in order to raise and spend so much money. He was paying for an unprecedented barrage of early TV attack ads that doomed Mr. Dole even before a single vote was cast.
Don't take my word for this. The proof comes from Mr. Clinton himself as revealed by the latest batch of videotapes. "The fact that we've been able to finance this long-running constant television campaign," he told well-heeled donors at a May 21, 1996, White House lunch, "has been central to the position I now enjoy in the polls." To the extent those ads were financed with illegal money, Mr. Clinton stole the election.
Mr. Clinton's words confirm the case already laid out by his own campaign Rasputin, Dick Morris, both in his candid book and in his Senate deposition. "In my opinion, the key to Clinton's victory was his early television advertising," writes Mr. Morris in "Behind the Oval Office." "There has never been anything even remotely like it in the history of presidential elections."
That's for sure. Mr. Morris describes a blitzkrieg that began in July of 1995, ran mainly in swing-voter states where Mr. Clinton was unpopular, and showed every TV viewer from "150 to 180 airings" or "about one every three days for a year and a half."
None of this came cheap, which is where the lawbreaking comes in. Keep in mind that in return for accepting taxpayer campaign funds, Mr. Clinton promised to limit his campaign spending before the 1996 political conventions to about $37 million. But this wasn't nearly enough to pay for what Mr. Morris had in mind.
Which is why they conjured up the now-famous soft-money loophole. Mr. Morris has told the Senate he paid for the first batch of TV spots, on crime in July 1995, with $2.4 million in "hard money" that everyone agrees was legal. But hard money is subject to strict limits that make it difficult to raise.
"Soft money" is supposed to go only for political parties and can be raised in more or less unlimited amounts. Mr. Clinton's insight -- and his lawbreaking -- was that he could use soft money to finance TV spots that were technically paid for by the Democratic National Committee but in fact were masterminded by, and run on behalf of, himself.
Such coordination is illegal, but Mr. Morris describes Mr. Clinton's role on page 144 of his book: "Every line of every ad came under his informed, critical, and often meddlesome gaze. Every ad was his ad." (Mr. Morris's emphasis.)
Many readers will remember those ads, even Republicans who've tried to forget them. They were often grainy black and white jobs, linking Bob Dole to Newt Gingrich. They echoed the themes of the Clinton campaign -- that "DoleGingrich" was slashing Medicare and ruining education. And they just happened to be produced by the same consultants who wrote the hard-money Clinton campaign ads.
Former White House politico Harold Ickes has told the Senate that Democrats spent between $40 million and $55 million on these pro-Clinton soft-money spots. As much as $1.5 million a week was spent in the fall of 1995 during the decisive battle of the budget.
A Morris memo to Mr. Clinton on Feb. 22, 1996, shows how, week after week, the DNC spots dwarfed spending for official campaign spots by two and three to one. "If Dole is nominated, we need no additional CG [Clinton-Gore] money before May 28," the same memo says, "since we can attack Dole with DNC money."
This voracious demand for cash helps explain why Mr. Clinton was personally eager to place John Huang at the DNC. It explains why he was willing to demean his office by appearing, as revealed in the latest videotapes, next to Charlie Trie, Johnny Chung and James Riady -- all of whom have fled this country rather than explain themselves to the Senate. These are the folks who were raising soft money, much of it we now know by dubious means.
We also know that the DNC has returned some $3.1 million raised by these and other upstanding fellows. But as they say on Wall Street, Mr. Clinton still got the benefit of the "float." He received interest on the ill-gotten cash but only had to repay it after he'd won. And in political terms he got to spend it early, when it was most helpful. More than one businessman has gone to jail for misappropriating "float" like this.
As for the legality of misusing soft money, listen to Mr. Clinton's own ideological friends. Common Cause has called use of the soft-money loophole a "massive illegal" scheme. The president's own former deputy attorney general, Philip Heymann, has assailed the Justice Department as "flatly wrong in saying that there is no evidence of massive violations" of the law.
These liberals assuage their Democratic loyalties by blaming Republicans too. And Republicans eventually did exploit the soft-money loophole. But they were third-rate perpetrators, copycat burglars. The GOP's soft-money campaign only began in earnest in April, after Mr. Dole had exhausted his own public campaign funds during the primaries. All told the GOP spent less than half of what Democrats spent through the soft-money backdoor.
But the Clinton-Morris ad onslaught had already beaten Bob Dole by January. All throughout the government shutdown debate, Mr. Clinton's soft-money ads thundered across the country without reply, linking Mr. Dole indelibly to the unpopular Mr. Gingrich. Such impressions are hard to shake. As Mr. Morris now puts it, "Negatives which run so deep and have hardened for so long cannot be uprooted by normal political means." In swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan where the ads ran, Mr. Clinton led by more than he did in core Democratic states like Rhode Island and New York.
As Democrats and liberal columnists kept telling us at the time, the polls barely changed throughout 1996. While Mr. Dole sometimes led Mr. Clinton in the summer of 1995, Mr. Morris reports that the president emerged in January with a 47%-38% lead. With the exception of his August convention "bounce," which quickly reversed, Mr. Dole got no closer until Election Day, when he lost, 49%-41%.
I don't believe the ad campaign is the only reason Mr. Dole lost. He also had to overcome a strong economy, a feckless campaign and his own age and Senate tenure. But if you believe that TV ads are decisive in politics -- and Mr. Clinton says on tape he believes it -- the president stole his re-election as slyly as any Chicago ward boss ever did. In this age of media politics, breaking campaign-finance laws to run tens of millions of dollars in TV spots is the moral and practical equivalent of stuffing ballot boxes.
In America, we don't rerun presidential elections. But how an election is won should effect the respect with which a president is held and is surely part of his legacy. The enduring legacy of Mr. Clinton's re-election is that you can cheat and win. And if you're going to cheat, do it first, and do it enough, so you are certain to win. If all hell breaks loose later, you then control the Justice Department, and you can even claim to favor "campaign finance reform."
This is a legacy of cynicism that will echo through our politics for years.
(See related letters: "Letters to the Editor: Can Election `Theft' Be Proven?" -- WSJ Oct. 27, 1997)