Hillary 2008 Spurs GOP Reform Effort

Posted August 1, 2003 at 5:56pm

As both parties consider reworking what most concede is a broken presidential funding system, some Republicans are privately summing up their unusual support for such reform efforts in three words: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Fueled by speculation that the junior Democratic Senator from New York could make her own run for the White House in 2008, a growing GOP contingency believes that Republicans must act to reform the presidential funding system now so they don’t end up with an impossible fight on their hands.

“On the Republican side, it’s a wide open primary” in 2008, one prominent GOP source explained, noting that even well-heeled, high-profile Republican politicians such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would be hard-pressed to keep up financially with someone of Clinton’s star quality.

Already, the New York Senator — who last week launched a Web site for her 2006 Senate re-election campaign — has emerged as perhaps the Democratic Party’s most potent fundraising weapon. The former first lady is creating a frenzy among various Democratic organizations all vying to use her name on their public fundraising appeals — a phenomenon enjoyed by just a few other Democrats such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.).

Capitalizing on the success of her recently published memoir, “Living History,” Clinton’s Web site offers donors a signed copy of the book for a $150 contribution and a limited edition personally inscribed volume for a $1,000 donation.

While supporters of President Bush are looking to be anointed “Pioneers” and “Rangers,” Clinton is asking her supporters to become “Hill’s Angels” to help Clinton fight the “right wing” personal attacks on her character.

Coming soon, according to her Web site, is another class of contributors called “Hill Raisers,” who are urged to raise contributions using online tools — and this sort of aggressive outreach is getting noticed.

“It’s usually conventional wisdom that Republicans can outraise the Democrats. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case in 2008,” explained a Republican party operative, who said many fear that Clinton could easily raise $100 million to $200 million for a presidential bid without batting an eyelash.

Trevor Potter, the former GOP chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a respected voice in the pro-reform community, said he’s not shocked that Republicans are waking up to the fact that the presidential campaign finance system needs a makeover.

“If you look forward to a normal, contested primary with a number of people, it seems to me very logical that Republicans would continue to benefit from a working campaign finance system in the primary,” Potter said.

Potter noted that the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections have been “unique in terms of George W.’s built-in financial base” emanating from his father’s connections and his own ties inside and outside of Texas.

“Your average Republican Senator running in the primary is not going to have a George W. Bush-type financial base,” he said.

Other Republicans, such as Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a stalwart opponent of most campaign finance reform efforts, have other fixes in mind. McConnell has long said he would like to dismantle the public funding system for presidential campaigns — and is expected to vigorously oppose any efforts to do otherwise.

Most Democrats, however, need less convincing as they prepare to endure round two of the increasingly lopsided presidential money battle.

“I think this is something we’re going to have to look at,” Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) told reporters at a recent press conference. “We’ve gotten to the point where because we’ve doubled the hard-dollar limits that there is even less incentive for a candidate to participate in the public financing portion of it.”

Meehan said “reaction to this presidential election obviously would have an impact on our ability to change that system positively for the next election.”

While most of those candidates competing in the crowded Democratic field cannot afford to eschew federal matching funds in the primary — which come along with spending limits of about $46 million — Bush is preparing to once again opt out of the system and is expected to rake in close to $200 million by January.

He raised a whopping $3.5 million at one fundraising reception alone earlier this summer, leaving most of his Democratic rivals in the dust.

Nonetheless, reform proponents are quick to point out that 45 Democrats and 29 Republicans — every major party presidential nominee, with the exception of Bush — have accepted public financing for their primaries since the system was first enacted in 1976.

Many believe that tweaking the post- Watergate system still in place to deal with the modern realities of a front-loaded primary system and the increased costs of campaigning would do wonders to reinvigorate the process.

The most vocal GOP advocate for revamping the system is Michael Toner, a Republican member of the FEC. He and outgoing Commissioner Scott Thomas, a Democrat, are shopping their own proposal for reforming the system around on the Hill.

Their plan would raise the spending ceiling for primary to about $75 million and increase the amount of matching funds available to a candidate in the nomination phase of a campaign to about $37.5 million.

They suggest that the government should match the first $500 of individual donations instead of the $250 matched currently.

Others are pressing for slightly different changes.

“We are proposing a multiple match of $250 — a four-to-one match — which would make the smaller contribution more important, as it was supposed to be in the nominating process,” explained Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer.

Jointly with Common Cause, Wertheimer is also pushing for a $75 million spending limit for the primary, repeal of the state-by-state spending limits, a requirement that candidates opt in or out of the public financing system for the entire election, increased resources for a pot of public funds to fuel the matching system and other changes.

The small crowd of reform leaders in the House and Senate said they’re eager to address the issue.

“We are in intense discussions about a reform of the presidential campaign financing issue,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters last month. “Clearly, one of the answers is you’re going to have to make it more attractive to take the option of public financing, and/or those that take the option of public financing can be much more competitive.”

Whether Bush or Clinton are the impetus for change, Wertheimer said that reforming the presidential campaign finance system is an idea whose time has come.

“The reality is that candidates in both parties are going to need this system in 2008,” Wertheimer said. “We’re going to have an open seat [in the White house] and a number of candidates in both parties. … so there’s a practical need for this for candidates of both parties.”