The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:
Congressional Democrats -- not all, but perhaps enough to make a difference -- are having second thoughts about campaign finance reform. They were happy to support the principal bill -- and lambaste the Republicans for opposing it -- when it had no chance of passage. But now it does have a chance, and, as has happened before, a number of Democrats are in full wobble.
They have a problem, however: how to explain a change of heart that opens them to the charge of hypocrisy. It's not enough simply to say that on reflection they've changed their minds. Nor can they convincingly complain that the bill is too strong, partly because it isn't -- it's modest legislation -- and partly because they've spent the past several years bemoaning the fact that existing law is too weak.
But another line of argument remains open to them. Listen carefully as the Senate gears up to debate the bill this month, and you will begin to hear it said that the problem with this bill is that it is not strong enough . That allows the would-be switchers to sound consistent and wobble, both at the same time -- the perfect refuge.
The bill, by Sens. John McCain and Russell Feingold, seeks to outlaw the so-called soft-money system, whereby the national parties are used as straws to raise and spend on behalf of candidates money that the candidates are ostensibly forbidden to raise and spend themselves. The fiction has made a mockery of existing finance law. But for good First Amendment reasons the bill imposes few new restrictions on the manifold activities of independent groups outside the parties. Wrong, some Democrats have begun to argue. "It's dangerous to control one part of the political system and leave the other unrestrained," Sen. Robert Torricelli, recent chairman of the party's Senate campaign finance committee, was quoted as saying the other day.
Republicans have used similar arguments in opposing the bill: They yield to none in their support for reform, but it ought to be complete, which they define as putting a tighter squeeze on organized labor. That poisons the bill for the Democrats, who then, the GOP hopes, would take the lead in voting no. Might the Democrats now sprinkle poison of their own?
Mr. Torricelli is right that this is limited legislation. Were it not, the attack would be that it sought to achieve too much -- better a step at a time. If the bill goes down, Republican resisters will bear their considerable share of the blame. But the Democrats are the ones who, right now, hold its fate in their hands. As a party, they have rightly denounced the current system in the past; offices today are bought as much as won. Congress should pass McCain-Feingold, or something like it. The Democrats, their credibility at stake, should be the ones to lead the way.
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