Harold Ickes found a loophole in the nation's tough new campaign-finance laws-and he drove an armored car full of cash right through it.
Through an organization called the Media Fund, Mr. Ickes, a former top adviser to President Clinton, raised millions of dollars to finance TV ads that criticize the Bush administration. The first of those ads hit the airwaves on March 10 in a $5 million barrage that elicited outrage-and a legal challenge-from Republicans.
The Media Fund isn't the only group slamming the president on TV. On March 4, MoveOn.org started running a $3 million ad campaign in 17 key states, precisely countering the president's own first ad buy of the campaign. As if that weren't enough, the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of homosexual GOP supporters, bought airtime for TV ads slamming Mr. Bush's call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Those ads started airing on March 11, part of the group's $1 million effort to defeat the amendment.
With the general election still eight months away, the early flurry of ad spending points to an especially ugly campaign. The anti-Bush ads are sharply critical, following on the heels of earlier ads from MoveOn that compared Mr. Bush to Adolf Hitler. MoveOn, the Media Fund, and other so-called 527 organizations (named for the section of the tax code under which they operate) report having some $70 million to spend, meaning they can afford to sling a lot of mud in the coming months-unless the Federal Election Commission steps in.
Lawyers for the Bush campaign have urged the FEC to do just that. In a complaint filed on March 9, they argued that the ads violate the McCain-Feingold law, which placed strict limits on unregulated "soft money" donations in political campaigns. Although the parties themselves can accept checks for no more than $5,000 from any individual, Mr. Ickes insists that "independent" 527 organizations like his can take-and spend-unlimited donations from wealthy backers.
That gives enormous influence to wealthy liberals like billionaire financier George Soros, who says that getting rid of Mr. Bush is the focus of his existence. He has funneled millions of dollars to both MoveOn and the Media Group, and he says there's plenty more where that came from. Because the GOP has been slow to form 527s, however, wealthy backers of the president can merely write a $5,000 check to his reelection campaign, and perhaps another to the Republican National Committee.
The Bush legal team is asking the FEC to take "rapid action" and impose "severe sanctions" against the Media Fund. Earlier, the RNC sent letters to some 250 TV stations, urging them to pull the MoveOn ads because they violated federal election laws. "The First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and discussion of ideas," the letter read. "However, Congress has enacted laws, which were recently affirmed by the United States Supreme Court, that govern how campaign speech can be funded and conducted ... running this advertisement breaks the law."
The FEC is expected to issue a ruling later this year, but that would come too late to halt the onslaught of third-party attack ads. Congress, too, may get involved, though it would likely move even more slowly than the FEC. "Some groups ... have recently been set up for the sole purpose of raising or spending tens of millions of dollars in soft money to influence the 2004 presidential and congressional elections," complained Sen. John McCain, the leading mover behind campaign-finance reform. "This blatant end run around the campaign-finance laws should not be tolerated."
Despite Mr. McCain's outrage, however, the chance for quick reform looks slim, so unless the Republicans respond with 527s of their own, Mr. Ickes's loophole could become a noose around the president's neck.