The Democratic Party's traditional campaign role is being largely taken over by a new group called "Americans Coming Together," which has been launched with two $10 million donations from financier George Soros and Peter B. Lewis, chairman of the Progressive Corporation. The new organization wants to raise $94 million to finance a massive campaign against Bush - all with soft money.
The Democratic Party, which is only allowed to raise hard money (donations limited to $2,000 per person) by the McCain-Feingold law is unable to amass the resources necessary for a national campaign, so it is ceding the main role to Americans Coming Together.
Hypocrisy in American politics at least provides material for humor. How else are we to view the attempts of Democratic Party leaders to circumvent the McCain-Feingold prohibition on the use of soft money in campaigns after their party insisted on its inclusion in the bill?
As the campaign-finance-reform bill went through Congress, Democrats demanded a ban on soft money donations to political parties. They succeeded in including it as the reform's centerpiece.
But it turns out that Republicans are raising twice as much as Democrats are in hard money: $158 million for the GOP vs. $66.5 million for the Democrats. So the Democrats have resorted to a loophole in McCain-Feingold and worked to maximize soft money contributions to phony political committees, allegedly independent of the party apparatus and thus not covered by the soft money ban.
The Democrats have always found hard money hard to come by. In the last election cycle, they financed 56 percent of their campaign costs with soft money while the Republicans used soft money for only 39 percent.
This lastest shift is not a case of matching a Republican move. The GOP has only begun to explore the loophole the Democrats are busy using. It is hypocrisy, plain and simple.
Americans Coming Together, a supposedly independent campaign committee, is reportedly one-third of the way toward its fund-raising goal. Its nominal independence from the Democratic Party, required by McCain-Feingold, is paper-thin.
Harold Ickes, President Bill Clinton's former deputy chief of staff who helped orchestrate the soft money fund-raising that financed the 1996 Clinton campaign, is working closely with Soros to fund Americans Coming Together.
Ickes has not always honored the boundaries between supposedly independent expenditures and political campaigns required by the Federal Elections Commission.
I almost fell through the floor of the White House early in 1996 when I attended a meeting chaired by Ickes of representatives of the political action committees of major American labor unions. Gathered in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, they each recounted their plans for "independent expenditures" against the Republicans in the coming election campaign. The meeting, quite illegal in many ways, represented exactly the kind of co-ordination forbidden by the campaign-finance laws.
Ickes is about as independent of Hillary as Bill is. He is her chief advisor. His photo graces her memoirs. He was her key operative in securing the Senate seat in New York. To pretend that anything he would do is independent of Hillary is like saying that the left hand is independent of the right hand.
One motivation for the Clinton move to circumvent the Democratic Party and establish a lifeboat in the form of Americans Working Together is that they view with alarm Howard Dean's rise to the Democratic nomination.
Dean, upon copping the prize, is likely to fire Terry McAuliffe and take control of the Democratic National Committee. No longer will its coffers be available to the Clintons to use as their private fund, channeling donations to candidates and causes they favor or that favor them.
So, before the hand-over of party power from Clinton to Dean takes place, they are working on stripping the Democratic Party of its central role and giving it to the more pliant Americans Working Together, instead.
The Clintons' efforts to sidetrack Dean haven't worked. Wesley Clark is collapsing in most national polls and has yet to find a primary to his liking to enter in force. John Kerry, whose campaign staff quit last week, is having difficulty raising funds even though the Clintons and the Kennedys have sent him their top operatives to try to bail him out.
Dean seems destined to win the nomination and with it control of the party. So the Clintons are moving out.
* HILLARY GOES LIBERAL: It's official. Hillary is a liberal. For those who doubted whether she was a "new" Democrat or an old one, her vote yesterday to continue the Kennedy filibuster of the president's Medicare prescription-drug benefit should settle the question. In the most important vote of the decade, so far, she voted with 25 other liberal Democrats against 22 moderates who voted for closure. This vote separated the left from the center of the party, and Hillary opted to go left. Big mistake.