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Is Big Money Bad For Politics?

Aired June 7, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET



REP. BOB FRANKS (R-NJ), NEW JERSEY SENATE CANDIDATE: Jon Corzine spent more than $30 million to make his name as familiar to folks in New Jersey as Ronald McDonald.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Is this multimillionaire trying to buy a U.S. Senate seat?


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Al Gore is taking them on, fighting for a Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors.


And has Al Gore broken a promise with this multimillion-dollar ad campaign? Tonight, big money politics.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE, Senator Robert Torricelli from New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

PRESS: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Two questions about money and politics tonight: One, are Senate races for sale? It looks that way in New Jersey, where an unknown Wall Street executive named Jon Corzine won the Democratic primary for Senate yesterday after spending about $35 million of his own money, a new record. To critics who say he didn't win the primary, he bought it, Corzine insists he had no choice.


JON CORZINE (D), NEW JERSEY SEN. CANDIDATE: People from the outside have virtually no opportunity to challenge incumbents and entrenched historical participants in the process, unless they have access to a great deal of financial support.

(END VIDEO CLIP) PRESS: Question number two: Have political parties become giant cash machines? Again, looks that way, as the FEC reports that both parties almost doubled the amount of soft money raised four years ago. Democrats started spending millions of their soft money today in issue ads boosting Al Gore.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: People can't afford these ridiculously high prices for prescription medicines. When their doctors prescribe medicines for their health, for their well being, they ought to be able to take them.


PRESS: But those ads could backfire since Gore once promised not so long ago to run no such ads until and unless the Republicans did first. So tonight, with campaigns awash in cash, is there too much money in politics, or not enough -- Bob?

NOVAK: Senator Torricelli, does the name Bob Franks mean anything to you?


NOVAK: Who is he?

TORRICELLI: He's the fellow who has given up his seat in Congress to be in a unsuccessful candidate for the United States Senate against Jon Corzine.

NOVAK: Well, he's the Republican nominee for the Senate, and I'd like to you look at something he said last night.


FRANKS: You see what's dangerous about Jon Corzine isn't the fact that he's spent tens of millions of his own money. What's really dangerous is the prospect of Jon Corzine potentially sitting in the United States Senate where he will have the power to spend your money.


NOVAK: Isn't that the real point that Jon Corzine makes $600 million running this investment banking firm in New York, puts in $33 million dollars of his own money, and he's going to spend all our money like a drunken sailor, isn't he?

TORRICELLI: You know, I think that it is a wonderful thing about our country that one of the most successful businessmen in America, who could have made hundreds of millions of dollars staying on Wall Street, decides instead in this point of his life, America has been so good to him, he wants to come serve in the United States Senate at a considerable personal sacrifice, because he cares about the country and he cares about people. I feel good about having a businessman, one of the best in America, serving in there Congress, and I'm surprised you don't, because I think you want a business perspective here.

NOVAK: Senator Torricelli, I understand that his performance, in "The New York Times," was so bad, that the "Times," a very liberal paper, wanted to endorse him, but they couldn't endorse him because he was such a stiff. He kind of fell on his words in every editorial meeting. If this guy didn't have this obscene amount of money, he wouldn't have more chance to be elected to office than Bill Press, would he?


TORRICELLI: Well, I don't know if you're that bad.

PRESS: Thanks, Bob.

TORRICELLI: That just isn't the case. I've seen wealthy people all across America run for public office and fail. Jon Corzine was more than an expensive campaign. Almost the entire leadership of the Democratic Party endorsed him -- organized labor, our principal labor leaders -- because he was engaging, and he was smart. Is he glib like a lot of politicians? No. Could he wow an editorial board with slick language and citing records? No. But he's smart, he's a good person, he's very dedicated, and for that reason, give the people of New Jersey some credit, they're a sophisticated group, they can be cynical at times; they knew what they saw, and they liked what they saw.

NOVAK: Well, isn't it a fact that Jim Florio is one of nastiest little fellows that's been in politics and they were looking for something else?

TORRICELLI: Jim Florio put Jon Corzine through his paces. Jim is smart, he's tough, he's aggressive, and Corzine stood up to it.

I think a lot of people like you were expecting some guy who comes from the business community, and a streetwise politician was going to tear him to pieces. It didn't happen. Corzine stood up to it, and now he has a commanding lead win that seat in the U.S. Senate.

PRESS: Senator McConnell, let me ask you about this race, even though it's on the Democrat side in New Jersey, you know, from what I've seen, Jon Corzine is the only guy out there I know who's more liberal than I am. I mean, that takes something, senator. I mean, you know, he's all the way, and I'd be ecstatic if he won in a fair fight. I don't think it was fair fight, when he spends 35 million bucks or close to it.

Senator McConnell, why shouldn't a candidate have to observe the same contribution limits as every other American -- two-thousand bucks, period?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL REPUBLICAN SENATORIAL COMMITTEE: Well, first, let's not read too much into this. Jon Corzine is not a U.S. Senator yet. He beat a guy in Jim Florio who the people of New Jersey indicated early on wouldn't elect to be dog catcher anymore. I mean, this guy had an extraordinarily high negative. Even though Corzine spent a lot of his own money, which he has a constitutional right to do. And as Bob accurately pointed out, many people who spend a lot of their money on elections have not made it, and Corzine hasn't made it yet. It appears to me that clearly this primary was a rejection of Jim Florio and his big tax increase. Beyond that, I wouldn't speculate this early about the outcome of this election. We think we've got a great candidate in Bob Franks.

PRESS: Well, I'm trying to get to the principal, whether it's Jon Corzine or whether it's Michael Huffington, whether a candidate should be able to walk into a race with an unfair advantage because of his own personal wealth.

And while everybody else is dumping on Jim Florio. I thought he was gracious today. He did endorse Jon Corzine, and here's what he said. I'd like to you respond to his point, senator, please.


JIM FLORIO (D), NEW JERSEY SENATE CANDIDATE: There's a whole new class of people who think perhaps in a midlife crisis, they can just wake up one morning and then just sign checks and take over the government.


PRESS: That's kind of what it is, isn't it? Sign a check, take over?

MCCONNELL: Well, it's perfectly clear. The Supreme Court has made it clear this is not in doubt, that you can spend all of your money on anything you want to, including running for public office, or speaking or going to Las Vegas. He has a constitutional right to do what he did. Some people have been able to spend a lot of the their own money and win. Many others have spent lot of their own money and lost. There's no question he had a right to spend $33 million of his money this way if he chose to, it's just not in doubt.

PRESS: Figure it out today senator, it was about $140 a vote that he spent. Word every penny?

MCCONNELL: We'll see. He's not in the Senate yet, and "The New York Times" said about Jon Corzine that he would be to the left of Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy. I think that's likely to be a big issue for the people of New Jersey in the fall election.

NOVAK: Senator Torricelli, the Democratic National Committee, unlimbered, beginning of a 10-week campaign, $25 million in soft money. For the uninitiated, that means that's money that has come in without any limits, put out as much money as you want. And how can you do that for a campaign for Al Gore? Well, it's not for Al Gore, they say, it's issue-advocacy ads. But of course most -- more than half of the ads are about Al Gore and talking about Al Gore. I think you know it's all a sham, but it was recognized as a sham several weeks ago by Al Gore, and let's look at what he said then.


GORE: I challenge you to accept my proposal that we both reject the use of soft money to run issue ads. I will take the first step by requesting the Democratic National Committee not to run any issue ads paid for by soft money unless and until the Republicans Party uses such money for advertising.


NOVAK: Now, Senator Torricelli, that little soundbite appeared on all the network news shows tonight, and the message coming out at the beginning of your $25 million campaign is you've got a candidate who can't be trusted.

TORRICELLI: Well, I think you're presenting this as is this is news. The use of soft money by both political parties didn't happen this year for the first time, or four years ago, or even six years ago. For years, both political parties have used soft money to do these nonspecific advertisements on personalities or on issues. Al Gore is doing the same. He laid a challenge down before George W. Bush not to do it. The challenge wasn't taken, and both political parties have now gone down this road.

But indeed, frankly, let me rather than getting into a Democrat- Republican fight, which you'd like to have here, let me put it back on you: I don't believe actually it is possible with the amount of hard money at a thousand dollars a person today to adequately communicate with the American people. As my friend Mitch McConnell likes to say, we don't have too little political speech in this country -- I mean, too much, we have too little.

NOVAK: But, Senator Torricelli, the point of the matter is that -- is not that the Republicans didn't accept the challenge, the Republican National Committee has not spent any soft money. He said he would not go first and he did go first. But you know, there is somebody...

TORRICELLI: But they have spent soft money. They've spent soft money through third-party and affiliated organizations.

NOVAK: Well, it wasn't by the national committee.

But there's somebody who gives a better response to the vice president than I do, and let's listen to that somebody.


GOV. GEORGE BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You think he was serious about saying they're not going to spend soft money on his -- he meant it -- that he was not going to spend any soft money on his behalf? Of course they are. This is the guy that said he's for campaign funding reform and immediately -- in the hopes that we'd forget that he went to a Buddhist temple to raise money.


NOVAK: Bad day for Al Gore, isn't it?

TORRICELLI: Well, Bob, the Republican National Committee has raised, as they appropriately can under the law, millions of dollars of soft money, and since Al Gore laid down that challenge, they've continued to raise millions of dollars of soft money. What is it you think they intend to do with it? The challenge was laid down, it was not taken.

The fact is both parties are engaged in this, and let me finish the point I started to make before, they have to be engaged in it. There is no way to communicate with the American people. In the last four years, the networks, including the one you work for, have raised the cost of television by 40 percent, reduced the amount of news coverage on issues in presidential campaigns by 75 percent. These candidates are being forced to communicate...

NOVAK: OK, Bob...

TORRICELLI: ... because of these rates and because of the lack of news.

NOVAK: We have to take a break -- but that is to pay Bill Press's salary.


NOVAK: But when we come back, we're going to talk about, guess what? A dead heat in New York.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

The money is soft, and plentiful, as the super expensive election campaign of 2000 moves into high gear, and one of the most expensive races naturally is in New York. Three weeks ago, the Quinnipiac College Poll had Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton 19 percentage points ahead of Republican Rick Lazio, but the new Quinnipiac Poll completed Monday shows a flat-out dead heat, 44 percent to 44 percent.

To discover what that means, we are talking to the Senate campaign chairman of the two major parties, Democrat Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky -- Bill.

PRESS: Senator McConnell, before we get to the coronation of Hillary Clinton in New York state, I'd like to come back for a second to these soft money issue ads, because as you know, the pro-Gore ads that went on the air today were not the soft -- first soft money ads of this campaign. In fact, here is a little snippet of one that started running two months ago, Senator McConnell. You'll remember this one.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome to "Hypocrisy." Contestants, are you ready? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Political hypocrites for $200.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He says he's for campaign finance reform, but held an illegal fund raiser at a Buddhist temple.



PRESS: Now, Senator McConnell, I don't really care who started first, but it's clear the Bush campaign struck first, didn't they?

MCCONNELL: Yes, that wasn't the Bush campaign, as you know, Bill.

PRESS: Oh, come on.

MCCONNELL: The pledge had to do with the two national committees and the only issue here really is the vice president's hypocrisy. This is from the same man who said he invented the Internet. He said he wouldn't run the first -- he would instruct the DNC not to run the first issue ads. Well, in fact, they have run the first issue ads. Hypocrisy is the only issue.

There's nothing wrong with these ads. If I were in Al Gore's situation, I would do the same thing. There's really not an issue here. Bob Torricelli is right, other people get to speak in the country other than the networks and the parties have a big stake, obviously, in who gets elected president of the United States. It's not surprising that the DNC would run issue ads...

PRESS: Senator...

MCCONNELL: ... and I certainly hope the RNC will be close behind.

PRESS: All right, but, Senator, I know that ad was put out by some phony committee in California controlled by former Republican governor Pete Wilson. I mean, if you think that Pete Wilson put that out on the air without checking with the Bush campaign, Senator, you're not as smart as I give you credit for being.

MCCONNELL: I'm sure he didn't, or he would be violating the law, and there are all kinds of groups out there, unfortunately, from your point of view, that have a perfect right to get involved in the campaign and to have their say.

PRESS: Well, let me ask you this, here's -- we -- the solution it seems to me is right at hand, I mean, President Clinton has said, Al Gore has said you don't need legislation, the Democratic chairman has said we don't need legislation -- which you would block anyway. Why don't both parties just shake hands and say no more soft money? You could do it right now, why don't you?

MCCONNELL: Why in the world would we do that? I mean, we don't want just the "New York Times," "The Washington Post" and CNN to have a lot of speech and determine the outcome of this election. We're entitled to have our say, too. And the only way you can have effective speech is to be able to amplify your voice. I mean, CNN, if it were not a huge corporation, no one would see this show. I mean, there has to be money to amplify the voice to send it out there.

TORRICELLI: All right, let's make a better deal...


TORRICELLI: ... if you really want to make a deal in campaign spending. We'll spend no soft money, cut your rates in half so we can maintain as much advertising and double the amount of hard news coverage, so the American people actually see some issues for a change.

PRESS: If you're talking to me, you have a deal. Unfortunately, I'm not running the network.

NOVAK: It may stun you to know that we don't make those decisions.


TORRICELLI: Somebody should, instead of hearing the networks rail every night about campaign spending, we can do something about.

PRESS: All right, here here, here here.

TORRICELLI: Let Jennings and Brokaw and Rather get these rates down so people can actually communicate with the American people effectively and put some hard news on rather than just talking about horse races and fund raising every night, so the American people can be informed.

NOVAK: Senator, let's go to a horse race. Senator Torricelli, you always look good, but I detect a little egg on your face because you were one of the people who talked the first lady, who had never run for any office, who had never lived in New York, into running for New York. Everybody knows her.

Little Rick Lazio announces three weeks ago, nobody knows him, he falls on his face in the Memorial Day parade, gets all those stitches, and he's at 44 percent dead even, he gained 20 points in three weeks, outspent. Aren't you embarrassed?

TORRICELLI: I feel very confident of the outcome of this race. Rick Lazio is a fine guy, he's a very competitive candidate, he will make a great race out of this, but in the end, the people of New York are going to look at both candidates. The people of New York want an advocate for child care, for access to affordable health care, they believe in gun safety, in quality education. Hillary Clinton will dominate all those issues.

And one thing I know about New York is they want a world-class senator who can be on a high platform and advocate the interests of that state. There is going to be a significant stature gap when poor Rick Lazio has to stand next to Hillary Clinton in this race. I feel very confident about the outcome.

NOVAK: Senator, I want to ask you to take a -- have you take a couple -- look at some of the internal figures in this Quinnipiac Poll, which just fascinate me. I'm sure they fascinate you too, Bob. The -- on the unfavorability rating, for example, Mrs. Clinton's unfavorability is 39 percent -- you have to spend a lifetime in politics to get that kind of unfavorables. Rick Lazio's unfavorable, 8 percent.

TORRICELLI: Well, Bob, Rick Lazio is unknown. By the time the people of New York know that Rick Lazio has opposed important gun- control measures, been against the hiring of a hundred thousand teachers, blocked the administration's efforts for health care reform...

NOVAK: Excuse me...

TORRICELLI: ... he's not going to be at 8, he's going to be at 48 percent negative. You're taking an unknown and comparing him against someone whose entire life she has been exposed to the people of New York.

NOVAK: Now let's look at the independent voters of New York, not the controlled Democratic voters who you can lead by the nose and have them vote for anything that comes along...


NOVAK: ... but the independent voters are Lazio 53 percent, Clinton 31 percent. You're in trouble, Bob.

TORRICELLI: No, Bob, in the end, Hillary Clinton is going to be the senator from New York. New Yorkers are not going to elect a Republican candidate who has blocked important education reform, against the hiring of teachers, has opposed a construction of schools so vital to Buffalo and to the city of New York, and they simply are not going to support someone who was not there on gun control. That -- no one has been elected to the state of New York with that kind of record. Rick Lazio is not the moderate he's pretending to be. In the end, he will lose this race.

PRESS: Mitch McConnell, quickly, Rick Lazio certainly a lot more conservative than Rudy Giuliani ever was. Isn't he out of the mainstream for New York voters?

MCCONNELL: This race is going to be about Hillary Clinton, and I think we've covered it. She's in the mid-40s, she's going to have a hard time ever getting above 45 percent. The race is going to be a referendum on her. Rick is a mainstream, Northeastern Republican, pro-choice, pro-gun control, the kind of Republican who wins in the Northeast against a very unpopular Democrat. Rick Lazio wins this race.

PRESS: Senators, you agree on soft money -- no surprise -- you disagree on New York. Thank you both for joining us tonight, Senator Torricelli, Senator Mitch McConnell. TORRICELLI: Thank you very much.

MCCONNELL: thank you.

PRESS: And Bob Novak and I will be back with our closing comments on money and politics.


NOVAK: Bill, Jon Corzine is a fellow alumnus of my great alma mater, the University of Illinois, and if he -- it doesn't bother me that if he is stupid enough to spend $33 million of his own money on a Senate seat -- who would want to be in the Senate -- that's OK.

But I really believe if the New Jersey people are as gullible to have a person totally inexperienced who is -- has every left-wing nostrum (ph) and they say because they see him on the commercials from New York and Philadelphia they want to vote for him, I think New Jersey gets what it deserves.

PRESS: Well, here's why I think it's a problem, Bob. I talked to Fred Wertheimer (ph) today, who is president of -- you know, who used to be president of Common Cause, now president of Democracy 21, who said -- said it this way, that the system today means you have to be either extremely wealthy to run, or you have to be extremely dependent on wealthy people to run. I think that's bad for democracy, and I don't care whether it's a Democrat or Republican, I just think you ought to level the playing field.

NOVAK: All you have to -- all the people in New Jersey have to do to level the playing field is say, we don't want this to happen. It's up to the people.

PRESS: But they're gullible.

From the left, I'm Bill Press, good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak, join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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