Soft money campaign woes haven’t gone away

“I’m (insert candidate here) and I approved this message.”

Washington voters have heard their fair share of political advertising. Both parties consider Washington to be a swing state, so our airwaves have been inundated.

We’ve also seen ads not approved by candidates. Those ads are far more negative and mysterious, and do nothing but poison the political well with half-truths and indiscriminate financing.

The organizations that sponsor these ads are called 527s, named after the tax code they fall under. Since the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill passed three years ago, soft money contributions have been taken away from candidates and placed into the hands of independent groups not affiliated with a particular candidacy. While the soft money ban under McCain-Feingold was a great idea, after three years it has become clear the soft money problem has metastasized – moving from candidates using the money to individual groups using the money, groups whose intentions and backgrounds are more difficult to trace.

These 527s operate from both sides of the fence – MoveOn.org, Americans Coming Together, the Club For Growth, and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth all run television and internet ads geared towards attacking the opposition. From mid-March to July, $44 million of the $170 million television ads were purchased by 527s.

The latest ad by the Swift Boat Veterans is a prime example of the situation 527s have created. The ad heavily criticizes John Kerry’s military record and claims to be a group of veterans organized in response to Kerry’s use of his military experience in his campaign. But a closer look at Swift Boat Veterans for Truth reveals that the organization is led by John O’Neill, a lifelong Republican who was hired by convicted Watergate felon Charles Colson in 1971 to discredit Kerry as soon as he stepped on the Senate floor to testify against the Vietnam war. On the other side, MoveOn.org runs ads that heavily criticize President Bush, saying he lied to the American people about Iraq. But neither candidate has to claim responsibility for the ads or for the group themselves, even though their goals may be the same.

Banning soft money from candidates was a step in the right direction, but the unforeseen consequence of that ban has led to worse results: money going to organizations that aren’t directly tied to a candidate yet clearly have an agenda tied to the election of another candidate.

While politicians are no longer beholden to soft money contributions, they are now indebted to the soft money and unlimited spending that 527s offer, a situation that threatens democracy more than soft money did in the first place.

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