The Soft Money Tango: Lazio Leads the Duo, Mrs. Clinton Dances

“No voters ever talk to me about soft money,” said Hillary Rodham Clinton on the sodden afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 23, in the auditorium of the Bank Street College of Education, near Columbia University. Reporters, in contrast, were talking to the First Lady about soft money for the fourth day in a row-or rather, closely questioning her about what had become a matter of sudden all-importance in the Senate race: the status of her campaign’s negotiations with the campaign of Representative Rick Lazio regarding a ban on the use of soft money for television and radio advertising.

(Soft money, for those normal New Yorkers among you, is money that political parties raise in great, unrestricted bucketfuls, as opposed to the “hard” money that political candidates raise, in tiny, $2,000-maximum-per-donor-per-election-year droplets. This is not the same as independent expenditures, which are made by advocacy groups, such as the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association, that endorse candidates based on their stands on specific issues.) At Bank Street, in an abrupt about-face from a position that she had firmly taken the day before, Mrs. Clinton was acceding to Mr. Lazio’s demand that she ask independent groups not to advertise on her behalf.

Like her or lump her, this one had to hurt: In 1998, the New York State United Teachers spent $1.2 million to help elect then-aspiring Senator Charles Schumer. Now, the First Lady was asking the teachers to spend nothing. And, all the more remarkably, she was doing it in the name of an issue that she felt had virtually no resonance with real people. “[Soft money] is never raised; it is never a question,” said the First Lady. “I believe personally it is an important issue, but there are not many New York voters who think it is an important issue.”

In other words, as Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf put it, “Nobody gives a shit about this stuff.”

Too true. Then why, the question remained, had Mrs. Clinton stepped so squarely in it? And, having done so, was she emerging with a feather in her cap, or something to wipe off her shoe? As for Mr. Lazio, he had indisputably won the short-term rhetorical battle. But for purposes of the electoral war, had he infused his effort with a second wind, or just injected it with a false jolt of caffeine?

“Had we not done what we did, this would have been a distraction for the rest of the campaign,” said David Axelrod, the Chicago-based media consultant who, as the maker of many pro-Hillary soft-money ads financed by the New York State Democratic Committee, is the designated villain of the piece. A colleague of his put it more bluntly. “It was not about soft money. It was about credibility,” said a Clinton adviser, who was saying exactly what the Lazio team has been spinning.

For good or ill, Mr. Lazio brought this fight to his end of the playground, and he had forced Mrs. Clinton to play there. At the candidates’ Sept. 13 debate in Buffalo, Mr. Lazio, stopping just short of sticking out his tongue and calling the First Lady a “fraidy cat,” basically dared Mrs. Clinton to sign a pledge not to use soft money, of which she had raised astronomically more than he. (Meanwhile, he had raised a great deal more hard money than she.)

Rather than accept on the spot, Mrs. Clinton, stopping just short of turning her nose up and tripping him with her jump-rope, double-dared Mr. Lazio to get 14 anti-Hillary independent-expenditure groups working on his behalf to sign an agreement not to advertise against her. Mr. Lazio actually got the signatures by Sept. 20, one word he triple-dared Mrs. Clinton with an offer she had to refuse: That evening, Lazio campaign manager Bill Dal Col, along with staffers Michael Marr, Dan McLagan and Eileen Long, a horde of media, at least one unidentified small, elderly woman sporting a spangled baseball cap, and God knows who else-all showed up at Hillary headquarters at 450 Seventh Avenue and demanded that the two campaigns meet to discuss a total ban on all soft money and independent expenditures by third parties.

Actually, this was the second wack-ola moment of the day at 450 Seventh. Earlier that afternoon, four plainclothes New York City police detectives had alerted Team Hillary that anarchists would soon be approaching the building. As it happens, the anarchists were arguably less violent than the Republicans; all they did was hold signs and chant. Still, between the awaiting of their arrival and that of Mr. Lazio’s enemy generals, the campaign office had a weird, wild feeling about it. According to a staffer, “It was like, ‘Can this campaign get any more bizarre?'” But if that staffer was among those watching on television what was transpiring live in the hallway, on the other side of the campaign’s front door, he could have seen then and there that the answer to the question was emphatic: This campaign can always get more bizarre.

There to cut the interlopers off at the elevator bank were Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson and campaign manager Bill De Blasio, who took to appealing to Mr. Dal Col for a private meeting that would be something other than a “media circus.” But he was, of course, essentially making this plea to the ringmaster while a bunch of elephants and bearded ladies danced all around. He was nice about it, though, which just made the whole scenario that much weirder. Mr. Dal Col was handed a Hillary campaign hat that he promised-no, vowed-to wear, if the hat’s namesake complied with his boss’ pledge. They agreed to meet again.

Team Hillary Divided

With that, the circus left the elevator bank. Mr. De Blasio and Mr. Wolfson returned to their offices, and Team Hillary’s internal what-now debate began. At this point, there were two poles of opinion: At one end was Mr. Wolfson, who wanted to take the challenge and run with it. At the other was media adviser Mandy Grunwald, whose take, as paraphrased by a colleague, was “do not engage.” In between was a spectrum of players, such as Harold Ickes and pollster Mark Penn, whose attitude was described as “wait and see, but then decide.”

“Mandy was insane on this,” said the colleague. “Mandy was totally insane .” But taken in context, Ms. Grunwald (who did not return a call for comment on this story) was not insane-at least not initially. Consider the atmosphere in which Team Rick made its twilight raid. Most voters do not know soft money from soft ice cream, and when Mr. Lazio first raised the notion of banning it, more than one Hillary cheerleader had come out and said as much by way of dismissing any possibility that he might have gained political ground. This was particularly true in light of the fact that Mrs. Clinton had, as her campaign never tired of citing, called for such a ban on two much earlier occasions-if with the exact self-interest-to-idealism ratio currently on display from Mr. Lazio. In fact, hindsight seemed to favor the idea that Mr. Lazio might have lost a foot or two with the tactic-or at least Mrs. Clinton seemed to think so.

Meanwhile, as the soft-money matter seemed to be coasting along on neutral, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was benefiting from developments that had to be counted as positive: That very same Wednesday, Sept. 20, Special Counsel Robert Ray, citing a lack of evidence, announced that he had no plans to indict either Clinton. Better yet, as both campaigns by then knew, the next day would bring a New York Times –CBS poll that showed the perpetually deadlocked First Lady to be nine full points ahead of Mr. Lazio. As Team Rick hastened to point out, a Marist poll taken at roughly the same time showed the candidates to be in a dead heat. That may have taken some of the shine off the Times -CBS numbers-but it did nothing to dim the ever-brightening prospect of Vice President Al Gore leaving George W. Bush in the dust in New York. And this prospect, in fact, rendered even the matter of the Lincoln Bedroom to be something that smelled, not something that killed. So while Team Rick seemed to be taking the offensive, it was, in fact, on the defensive. Throw in the argument that engagement in negotiations could end in having to forgo a disproportionately fat amount of money that could be spent in ways that the voters would notice, and Ms. Grunwald’s advice-“do not engage”-sounds arguably sane.

But as of the morning of Thursday, Sept. 21, Team Hillary had engaged-sort of.

“Sort of”-those are two syllables that can get a gal into a whole heap of trouble.

“There was a strong contingent of people who felt she had to do one thing or the other,” said a campaign source of the to-play-or-not-to-play dilemma. But at least superficially, when the two sides met on Thursday morning, that contingent did not seem strong enough. Mr. De Blasio arrived at the Sheraton Center with senior adviser Ann Lewis and Public Advocate Mark Green, who was on hand to give a pre-meeting good-government campaign-finance-reform pep talk before bolting. Taking an approach that had been generally agreed upon, Mr. De Blasio read a statement to the press, dismissing the proceedings as a stunt and a desperate response to falling poll numbers. Ms. Lewis remarked that “I have bought Swiss cheese that had fewer holes in it” than did the Lazio proposal.

Then, instead of doing what would come naturally-namely, turning on their heels and leaving this riddled dairy product of a charade-the two went into a conference room to face a more numerous contingent of Lazio people. The meeting took something under an hour, but the post-meeting meetings conducted by each team among themselves so as to determine what to do about the meetings took a good deal longer than that. Mr. Marr and Mr. Dal Col, bandit-like the night before, were Boy Scouts today, meeting the press to discuss how fruitful and productive the discussion had been.

Meanwhile, Mr. De Blasio and Ms. Lewis disappeared, leaving deputy press spokeswoman Karen Dunn to explain that they had, Elvis-like, left the building-but would soon issue a written statement. Approximately seven hours later, the campaign wrought the following: “Given that Hillary was the first candidate in this race to propose a soft money ban, we look forward to continuing these negotiations. While we have real questions about enforceability and other matters, we will continue to work for a fair agreement.” (“We were not dealing with the Little Sisters of the Poor over there,” said Mr. Axelrod, by way of defending the peeling-paint pace of events. “We were dealing with a bunch of sharks.”)

Insanity Clause

Back at the rhetorical playground on Friday, Sept. 22, Mrs. Clinton quadruple-dared Mr. Lazio (with sugar on top!) with an offer that he had to refuse-and one for which Ms. Grunwald had lobbied powerfully. Here is where the “insane” part has the regrettable ring of truth, for the deal she pushed was this: Both campaigns, and the political parties supporting them, would refrain from soft-money advertising-but while Mr. Lazio’s icky, crazy, ad hoc independent-expenditure groups would still be obliged to stay off the air, Mrs. Clinton’s nice, pristine, reproductive-rights-environmentalist-union-type groups could advertise away.

Insane.

Now intellectually, it must be said, there is some merit to the idea that the Sierra Club does not belong in the same sphere as the Emergency Committee to Stop Hillary Rodham Clinton. And in fairness to Ms. Grunwald, it seems that her conviction on this point only reinforced the candidate’s own strongly held predisposition. Politically, however, the merit to such an approach is significantly less than zero, particularly when the candidate is a Clinton. It was on that Friday afternoon, in Westchester, that Mrs. Clinton did Mr. Lazio’s work for him. She appeared untrustworthy-not in the dark, foreboding, she-killed-Vince-Foster kind of way known to people who will never vote for her, but in the uneasy, irritated, she-just-won’t-level kind of way that is familiar to those who might vote for her.

The whole act came across as a lethal blend of sanctimony and treachery, with a dash of devastatingly legalistic semantics thrown in for good measure. Pressed as to why on God’s green earth the Lazio campaign would allow this arrangement, Mrs. Clinton evoked a letter from Mr. Dal Col to Mr. De Blasio which allegedly spelled it out. While an extremely generous reading of the letter made such an interpretation plausible, the attached contract-while drafted in Disneyland-made it impossible. (On Saturday, Mrs. Clinton also said that she had not personally seen either the letter or the clearly unsignable-but as clearly readable-contract attached to it.)

Mrs. Clinton had spent all day Friday touting an article in The New York Times which stated that a soft-money ban would put her at a grave disadvantage. The milk on her corn flakes must have gone sour in a hurry, though, when it registered that the Times editorial board-and that of the Daily News -whacked her but good. “How many people do you think know what soft money is?” The Observer asked a campaign official.

“How many people are on the editorial board of The New York Times ?” came the reply.

It would have been the straw that broke the camel’s back-if not for the fact that by Friday night, it was clear to the campaign that the camel’s back was broken already. On Saturday morning it was clear that the campaign was figuring out what to do. Before, during and after the Bank Street event, it was figuring out the particulars. For whatever reason, Ms. Grunwald was reportedly not a party to those Saturday-morning discussions.

“I’m sitting here in my boxers, eating bon-bons,” joked Mr. Axelrod, who had, after all, officially been forced out of the process by the combined energies of the good, the true and the beautiful. “I’ve got a going-out-of-business sale: snarling announcers, menacing photos …”

Not to be a naysayer, but it’s hard to believe that Mr. Axelrod is going to be out of work for the next six weeks. There has been, after all, an awful lot of talk about an awfully thin reed of an agreement, and an awful lot of entities are going to have to hang onto it against their will.

“I’m getting a paper route,” said Mr. Axelrod, hanging up.

But not, one ventures, just yet.