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My Really Big Idea

By Calvin Trillin

TIME, March 10 -- I have an idea for how we can get a campaign-finance-reform bill enacted into law. This is a big idea. Try to listen carefully. I don't come up with a big idea all that often. I want you to keep in mind two facts. One is that the Republicans control Congress. The other is that Bill Clinton is publicly committed to campaign-finance reform, at least during the day. (At night he's at fund raisers, where he believes that access buying is a constitutional right roughly equivalent to the free exercise of religion.) Under my plan, the campaign-finance-reform legislation that is passed by Congress would be delivered to him in the daytime.

That's not my big idea, delivering the bill in the daytime. That's just common sense. The big idea is this: we persuade Bill Gates to announce that assuming unlimited soft-money contributions to political parties remain legal, he intends to donate $1 billion to the Democratic National Committee in precisely two weeks.

At the press conference where the announcement is made, Gates does not even mention campaign-finance reform. Borrowing a quote from Senate majority leader Trent Lott, he simply says that contributing large sums of money to political parties is "the American way."

Is Gates a Democrat? Don't worry about that. The reason he promises the $1 billion to the Democrats is because the Republicans, who are in the majority, would pass campaign-finance reform lickety-split if that's what it took to keep a billion dollars from the Democrats. As much as Clinton wants the $1 billion for the Democrats, he'll have to sign the bill because he's publicly committed to campaign-finance reform. So it's done. As you can see, big ideas can be remarkably simple.

Here comes the nitpicking. You want to know why Lott and his colleagues wouldn't take a chance on finding some rich conservative to neutralize Gates' gift by giving a billion dollars to the Republican National Committee? Because it's a long shot. Just to give you an idea of how much money we're talking about here, there is not a shortstop alive who has a billion dollars altogether. There are a limited number of people in this country who have that kind of money available to give away, and most of them are, to put it as diplomatically as possible, tight as ticks.

Speaking of people who are tight as ticks, you say, isn't Gates someone who spends a lot less on contributions than he does on, say, his basic housing needs? Absolutely. Considering his net worth and your net worth, in fact, his donations are the equivalent of your telling the United Way solicitor at the office that you'd like to pledge 15 [cents] this year, payable in quarterly installments.

That's one of the arguments we'd use for talking him into doing this: his entire reputation as a stingy nerd would be reversed in an instant, and assuming my plan works, he wouldn't have to come across with a penny. Soft-money contributions would be illegal.

If my plan doesn't work, Gates will have bought himself more than a "respectful hearing"--Clinton's term for what he gives those rich campaign contributors who come to the White House and present a lot of interesting ideas about how to prevent over-regulation of their industries. Gates will have bought himself a worshipful hearing. And he will have had the thrill of being part of a big idea.

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