Checks and Balances 

Conservatives are shocked -- shocked! -- by the power of money.

Whenever Republican leaders complain about the power of money in politics, the source of their concern is always the same: Somewhere, a Democrat of means has just written a substantial check.

So imagine their outrage at the news that George Soros, the billionaire financier and philanthropist, will spend millions next year to defeat President Bush. Actually, no imagination is needed to hear the squealing and squawking from the right. From the commanding heights of the Republican National Committee and House hearing rooms all the way down to the lowliest Web sites, George Soros is an object of vilification.

Leading the anti-Soros chorus is Ed Gillespie, the new R.N.C. chairman and former lobbyist. His clients notably included the late Enron Corporation, a firm where criminal book-cooking paid for promiscuous political palm-greasing.

According to a former Enron executive interviewed by The Washington Post, "whenever we had to get in to see a Republican, the first call was to Gillespie." While churning out press releases about the nefarious Soros, the R.N.C. chief continues to hold an ownership stake in Quinn Gillespie, the lobby shop he founded in 2000 with former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn that has reported fees totaling $27 million from its corporate clientele.

Now Gillespie accuses Soros of seeking to empower "special interests" and of undermining campaign-finance restrictions that the Republican Party has traditionally opposed and subverted. He frets that the Soros donations may not be "disclosed to the public."

On the Web site run by GOPUSA -- a commercial entity that attracted major Republican legislators, lobbyists, and commentators to its Washington conference this month -- the Jewish financier was recently described as "a Hungarian-born descendant of Shylock."

For the vast majority of right-wing whiners, however, what rankles is not his ethnicity but his determination. Soros, they say, is a hypocrite because after endorsing campaign-finance reform, he's now violating the spirit of the McCain-Feingold law that banned soft-money donations. The Wall Street Journal warns that liberal "fat cats" like Soros will be "less accountable" than the old soft-money donors and that "his views will follow his cash in influencing Democratic policy."

The Journal editorial sniffs that Soros will give money through so-called 527 committees (a reference to the section of the I.R.S. code that regulates such groups), whose "disclosure patterns have been full of holes and evasions." And any Democrat who defeats the president will have no choice but to answer to the Soros political "machine."

Exactly what has Mr. Soros done to provoke this reaction? He has given $3 million to a new liberal Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress. And yes, he has publicly pledged $10 million to Americans Coming Together, a liberal voter-registration effort, and $5 million to, an Internet-based group that is raising millions of dollars in small donations for liberal candidates and causes.

That sounds like a lot of money, except when contrasted with the enormous amounts pumped into organs of conservative propaganda every year by such truly prodigious spenders as Sun Myung Moon, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Mellon Scaife and literally dozens of other obscure but rich Republicans. The corporate leaders and K Street lobbyists who "bundle" these donations include an individual "tracking number" on every check -- to ensure proper "credit" by the White House.

The results can be traced in nearly every important item of White House legislation. Its energy bill brimmed with billions in favors to the oil, nuclear, coal, and auto industries. Its Medicare "reform" will dispense billions to the insurance, pharmaceutical, hospital, and nursing-home industries.

Meanwhile, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay oversees his own array of Republican 527 committees, which funnel millions of dollars into various advertising campaigns and legislative races. He has long since mastered the "holes and evasions" of this system and is constantly drilling new ones.

According to The New York Times, his latest is a "charity" that would suck huge, undisclosed contributions from anonymous Republican donors who desire access to Congress. Supposedly intended for the benefit of neglected children, this money's real purpose is to pay for "late-night parties, luxury suites, and yacht cruises" at next September's Republican convention.

But it is Soros who threatens the integrity of the political process. He wants to register more voters. n

Joe Conason writes a weekly column on politics for The New York Observer.

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