Senators Shoot Down Two Hot Air Balloons

Two legislative dirigibles crashed, and the sky is bright with burning hydrogen.

Last and least (in terms of its seriousness) was the campaign finance bill sponsored by Senators Russ Feingold and John McCain. Campaign finance reform is one of those hobbyhorses of Mr. McCain’s that cause the credulous to mistake his self-infatuation for independence of mind. Mr. McCain told his colleagues that the present system breeds corruption, but when Senator Mitch McConnell, the bulldog of the status quo, asked him who had been corrupted, he could not say.

Corruption is not the effect we should fear from campaign megaspending. Most money, especially soft money, is corporate bet-hedging that gets spread around with a pretty even hand. A drawback more on the minds of campaign finance reformers these days is the intimidating effect of massive hoards. Elizabeth Dole is the latest to abandon the Republican Presidential contest, cowed by George W. Bush’s millions and her own lack of them. Mr. Bush’s riches contributed to her poverty, as early donors flocked to what seemed to be the winning side.

But is this problem as bad as it seems? Some of the early dropouts in the Republican race were no loss. Should we change the laws to keep the field open for the trophy wives of former Senate majority leaders? Real politicians who have stepped aside-John Kasich, Dan Quayle-can be accused of timidity. Why didn’t they make their empty pockets a selling point, and take their pitch directly to small donors? Jerry Brown made a decent race in 1992 with nothing more than an 800 number. Much of the big spending that requires the multimillion-dollar war chests is self-defeating, anyway. You can shake down arms dealers, foreigners, Buddhist monks and teamsters, as Bill Clinton and Al Gore did for the 1996 campaign, to pay for Dick Morris’ daily tracking polls, but if you win by those means you find yourself, after your time is up, without a legacy. He who lives by focus groups when he campaigns will be playing golf alone in the dark as he retires.

The great problem with the current system is the time and energy it shunts to fund raising, and therefore away from other activities, such as thinking. But that is an artifact of the last wave of reforms. If you set the limit for contributions to individuals at the price of an old used car, then candidates and their campaigns will have to round up a lot of generous individuals. Not many candidates freed of this burden would devote their new blocks of time to The Peloponnesian Wars . But it would at least be clear to us that their lack of wisdom was their own fault, not the effect of an unrelenting environment.

The sensible solution is unlimited contributions, and full disclosure. Let the money flow, so long as the sun shines on it. Let Americans who don’t want their representatives to be beholden to Chinese agents of influence or tobacco companies attack those who take their money. If the voters shrug, then they will deserve what they get.

The great event of October, however, was the defeat of the Test Ban Treaty. The New York Times ‘ front page compared it to the Senate’s rejection of the Versailles Treaty and the Covenant of the League of Nations. Well, yes-the Versailles Treaty stunk, too.

Defeating the Test Ban Treaty was good on the merits. Almost 50 years go, George Kennan wrote bemusedly of America’s search for “formal criteria of a juridical nature by which the permissible behavior of states could be defined”-passing laws against bad countries. Calculation and strength are the only guarantees of security in the world. But the Test Ban Treaty attacked the strength that underlies all our calculations. A working nuclear deterrent needs workable components, which means testing the bombs and the missiles periodically to make sure they go off. If America wields aging, possibly decrepit weapons, then it is less able to rely on the threat of their silent presence.

Defeating the treaty was a good omen for defeating future turkeys coming in to roost. Since the Bush administration, the United States has been tying itself into a tissue of green obligations, in an effort to save the planet by hobbling industrialism. But the great threat to health and the ecology comes from a third-world agricultural underclass that burns tropical forests to farm the land and inhales the smoke in their huts. Economic progress would diminish both the fumes and their numbers. We don’t need international conventions to make the rich electrify their Volvos, and the Senate, having flexed its muscles, will be better positioned to block them.

Clinton attacked the Senate Republicans who voted him down as isolationists. Then he picked an isolationist to be one of his heads of the C.I.A., because John Deutch was one of the treaty’s assailants. Mr. Deutch was joined by such other peckerwoods as Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and Jeane Kirkpatrick. The opponents of the treaty were not people looking over their shoulders for black helicopters-they were half of the country’s foreign policy establishment.

The chief defamers of internationalism for the last seven years have been the Clinton team. They have pursued a policy of filmy goals with limited means. We send our sexually integrated troops and our diminishing hardware hither and yon, to insure that Haitians vote, Somalis eat and Kosovars live. When we come up against a country in our league, like China, that might add an offshore island nation to its diet, we speak softly and ask for campaign contributions. In Europe, we encourage the formation of the kind of gnome-run superstate to which the treaties we sign would reduce us, if there were not a Senate in the way.

On the surface no President could be more unlike Thomas Jefferson-small government, pacifist, noli me tangere -than William Jefferson Clinton, author of so many international broils. But their psychology, at least in terms of foreign affairs, is the same: if you don’t like the world you have, assume it is the world you like. It will be good to have adults again.

Senators Shoot Down Two Hot Air Balloons