Soft money, soft sell mark Gore's hypocritical ad debut

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This time, Al Gore cannot say there is no controlling legal authority.

The Federal Election Commission is definitely the controlling legal authority, chartered to regulate campaign finance. Luckily for the vice president, however, the FEC is the most impotent body in Washington not actually recovering from prostate surgery.

So the first Al Gore for president spot -- which the Democrats claim with a straight face is not an Al Gore for president commercial at all -- can air with absolute impunity, even though it is financed with "soft money" of dubious legality.

Now, we realize everybody's eyes glaze over when campaign-finance reform comes up, but just this brief tutorial: The FEC restricts the size of personal and corporate donations, so-called hard money, to federal candidates. But there are no restrictions on soft money donated to political parties for supposed "party building." That money is expressly prohibited from use in electing individual candidates.

But each election cycle, the political parties get more brazen in flouting the rules. And the FEC, based on a bizarre interpretation of a 1976 Supreme Court ruling, closes its eyes. If a soft-money ad doesn't explicitly say "vote for" or "elect" or "cast your ballot" or some such direct solicitation, it is deemed by the FEC castrati to be fair game.

Which is like not prosecuting a bank robber if he doesn't actually utter "hand over the money."

You'll see for yourself momentarily, but before examining the substance of this ad from the Democratic National Committee, let's just note that Al Gore -- who is on record promising not to abuse soft money if the Republicans don't do so first -- is first out of the gate in the quadrennial presidential Sleaze-a-thon.

"Every week," begins the spot featuring an elderly couple and a background of maudlin music, "Bob Darthez has to afford his groceries and prescription drugs.

"He's worked a lifetime, but now he's at the mercy of the big drug companies. They're using money and lobbyists to stop progress in Washington. Al Gore is taking them on, fighting for a Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors like Bob Darthez."

Then we see the vice president, in shirtsleeves, looking impassioned and dynamic. (No, it isn't a stunt double. It's really him.)

Gore: "People can't afford these ridiculously high prices for prescription medicines. When their doctor prescribes medicine for their health and well-being, they ought to be able to take it."

But, he says, many seniors can't take it -- and neither can we. If that's a party-building message, we're freakin' Tinkerbell, all right? It's worth noting that the ad was crafted by the ad-hoc Victory 2000 -- i.e., Gore consultants Carter Eskew, Bill Knapp and Bob Shrum. Oh well, if the Gore campaign chooses to slosh around in a sewer of greed and hypocrisy (sigh), this is a pretty good ad with which to do it.

Just as Bill Clinton four years ago used soft money to target women, the veep is seizing on senior citizens and their baby boomer children with his proposal to expand Medicare to cover 50% of prescription-drug costs up to $2,500.

George W. Bush has his own plan to defray seniors' drug expenses, but Gore has staked a pre-emptive claim to the issue, and no doubt will double back to criticize what he will probably characterize as "the Republicans' risky scheme."

For the moment, however, he has chosen not to demonize the opposition on this issue.

After months of Bush-bashing on the stump, it is a kinder, gentler, thoughtful, caring Al Gore we see here.

Of course, if he were truly caring and thoughtful, he'd use some of his soft money to buy a prescription for the FEC.

We'd suggest Viagra.

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