Voters Don’t Care Whose Money is Soft

Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned: I missed the debate between the two Senate candidates. Domestic obligations, etc. By the time my duties were discharged, the high priests of political chat were resurrecting images from the debate by way of offering their post-mortems. This is good, I thought, sort of like tuning into ESPN’s SportsCenter : You get to see the highlights without having to slog through (pick your sport) long at-bats, boring neutral-zone play, tap-ins for par or a series of three-and-outs. Plus, like SportsCenter , the political chatters could be counted on to show all the bloody parts, regardless of their relevance.

On CNBC, Geraldo Rivera and company employed the usual boxing metaphors-did anybody land a knockout blow?-before considering the signature moment of the proceedings. What could it have been, I wondered. I heard Mr. Rivera use the phrase “soft money.” Surely, I thought, no discussion of soft money could lead to a made-for-cable discussion of public policy. Didn’t these two well-prepared candidates have something better to argue over? Wasn’t at least one of them an untrustworthy, carpet-bagging, semi-socialist, bureaucrat-loving wife of a rogue? And wasn’t the other a smarmy, overly ambitious, ill-prepared, chameleon-like lightweight? The possibilities of a contention just made for cable TV seemed endless. They couldn’t have botched it by talking about soft money, right?

Wrong. Mr. Rivera cheerfully told unseen assistants to roll tape, and there was the dramatic moment of the night: Rick Lazio clutching a wad of paper and asking Hillary Clinton to affix her name to same. By doing so, the First Lady would have committed her campaign to an exorcism of that great demon of the nation’s editorial pages, unregulated campaign contributions. Mr. Lazio, purer than Caesar’s wife and better looking-after all, she’s been dead for 2,000 years-reminded the audience that he has promised to run a chaste campaign. Hands that handle soft money shall never touch his.

Mrs. Clinton, having already been forced to make allusions to her husband’s embrace of unregulated personal behavior, seemed a bit put off, but finally dismissed Mr. Lazio’s offer as little more than performance art. So it was. But clearly it was, at least in the media’s eyes, the high point of the proceedings.

Now, what’s an ordinary citizen to think? Here were two candidates for the U.S. Senate throwing around the phrase “soft money,” and afterward there were more great minds similarly engaged, and nearly everybody watching either couldn’t tell the difference between hard and soft money, or couldn’t care less.

I’m not much one for conspiracies-great or small, right or left, winged or earthbound-but I’m convinced that somebody has figured out that everything will be OK if the candidates and the press keep talking about “soft money” and “hard money” and avoid the subject of just plain money . For it is money-whether of the flaccid or the unyielding variety-that is responsible for so much of what ails politics today.

Politicians complain about the time and energy they must devote to the care, feeding and fleecing of the moneyed class. Contributors complain about the pressure they come under during every election cycle, as politicians in fund-raising boiler rooms go about their telemarketing chores. And the public quite naturally assumes that politicians and their contributors look out for one another, that those who give, get-whether that means access, influence or, in a perfect world, the occasional tax break disguised as a great benefit for the general public. It doesn’t matter much whether it was soft or hard money that persuaded politicians to embrace, say, a relaxation of federal emissions standards to allow car companies to build gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing sport utility vehicles. It doesn’t matter whether it’s hard or soft money that either holds up or encourages tort reform. What matters is that money-plain old money-seems to inspire politicians to action in ways that mere letters, common sense or even election results do not.

So, were I among those who spent a blissful night in the Lincoln Bedroom a few years ago, or if I were an oil baron-er, energy-services provider-who has invested heavily in Texas crude in hopes of drilling the country a new one, I’d be delighted to hear Mr. Lazio and Mrs. Clinton debating hard versus soft. I’d welcome the earnest editorials filled with insider jargon. And I’d get a kick out of pundits beating each other up over small differences.

What would have really worried me, however, was the few minutes religious lefty Michael Lerner recently spent on the PBS show NewsHour . Asked about the significance of Joseph Lieberman’s place on the Democratic ticket, Mr. Lerner went on a mild rant about the Senator’s refusal to question the way in which power is organized in today’s America.

Luckily, the moderator cut him off before he frightened investors overseas.