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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

The stupid party and the evil party: Together for the first time

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- The irreverent wit of former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson (when asked his "church preference," he actually had the nerve to answer "red brick") is sorely missed in today's Washington.

Simpson, a loyal Republican, used to say: "We have two political parties in this country, the Stupid Party and the Evil Party. I belong to the Stupid Party."

By Simpson's partisan divide, the GOP is intellectually challenged, but the Democrats are ethically deprived. Well this week, when the Democrats' congressional leadership gave its collective blessings to a back-door ploy to finance next year's federal campaigns by raising unlimited "soft money" contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals -- after that same congressional leadership had led the successful legislative fight to ban "soft money" from politics. Democrats just might be bidding to retire the trophy as both the Stupid Party and the Evil Party.

Consider the facts: Just five days after a U.S. district court decision upheld major portions of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), including a ban on federal officeholders directly or indirectly raising soft money, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, along with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Senate minority Whip Harry Reid of Nevada, were the main draws at two separate money events.

A main purpose of the evening was to inaugurate two new organizations that legally would not be creations of the Democratic Party, but the growth of which would clearly be of great personal interest to the party's leaders.

It's an open secret that while the two new "unofficial" groups are now raising only "hard money" -- which can be legally spent in House and Senate campaigns -- later both the New House PAC and the Democratic Senate Majority Fund will be seeking to raise "soft money" in six-figure chunks for the 2004 campaign.

Thus with a cynical wink and nod, Democratic Party leaders rush to squander the moral capital their party in Congress earned by providing the vast majority of the votes needed to pass BCRA. The reformers and many observers all agreed on a central truth: Campaign contributions from a single source of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars are not healthy for democracy. The explosion of soft money has further fueled the cynicism of voters that Big Money rules in Washington, that ordinary people have no clout and do not count.

Rep. Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, the lead House Democratic author of campaign finance reform, criticizes his party leadership's back-door endorsement of "soft money": "I don't think the Democratic Party ought to be involved in any schemes that seek to circumvent the very law most of us voted for." Hypocritical is a word that comes to mind.

But not content simply to surrender the high ground ethically their reform votes had won them, Democrats now appear eager to stupidly challenge Republicans to a competition for corporate soft money, which Democrats can only lose. What about soft money from labor unions? In 2002, business and corporate interests gave 10 times more soft money than did labor.

True, when Democrat Bill Clinton, a relentlessly effective fund-raiser, was in the White House, many corporate pragmatists were charmed or pressured into covering their political bets by giving to the Democrats -- although still less than to the Republicans. But those days are gone. Republicans now control both the Congress and the presidency. Republicans are the party of increasingly lighter regulation of business and ever-lighter taxes on the highest earners.

The Democrats' past dependence on soft money from corporate and business contributors has muted any bold economic message and produced instead a pale pastel program best described as Republican-lite.

In American political campaigns, a strong message can still beat money. But money will always beat no message. Democrats cannot play games. Unlike most Republicans, they did the right thing and courageously voted to curb the influence of the powerful by banning soft money from our nation's political life. Now they must show the courage of those convictions by rejecting any scams to get a soft-money fix.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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