Money talks, and Dole walks; Withdrawal: Those without access to mega-millions find it tough to compete in presidential primaries.


IT may have been a coincidence that Elizabeth H. Dole dropped out of the Republican presidential primary race just a day after campaign-finance reform died yet again in Washington. But there's a strong link: the warped role money plays in national elections.

Lack of money proved the culprit in Ms. Dole's early withdrawal. She raised $4.7 million, a hefty sum. Yet it pales next to the $57 million that Texas Gov. George Bush has hauled in and the unlimited personal funds available to publisher Steve Forbes.

Ms. Dole found that without vast financial resources she couldn't campaign effectively in major state primaries all bunched together early next year.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle discovered the same thing. He withdrew. Ditto Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. Money now dictates who can run for president.

Adding to the problem was the failure of the Senate this week to pass campaign-finance reform aimed at stemming the money race between the two political parties. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who remains in the presidential hunt, lost his fight to ban unlimited "soft-money" fund raising and spending by the parties.

The foremost advocate for uncapped fund raising, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, candidly admits Republicans can't retain control of Congress or regain the White House without tapping affluent supporters for hundreds of millions of dollars. For him, money counts far more than what the candidates are saying.

Voters are partly to blame. They have not held their leaders, like Senator McConnell, accountable for trying to buy elections. It is a dangerous situation that threatens to distort the very essence of American democracy.

Curran's call to disarm

Handgun ban: Attorney general wants ownership limited to police, gun collectors and a few others.

THROUGHOUT his four decades as an elected official, J. Joseph Curran Jr. has remained unafraid to take controversial stands. Witness his call this week for a ban on private handgun ownership to stem the nation's tide of violence.

Vicious killing sprees in Littleton, Colo., Atlanta, Los Angeles and Fort Worth persuaded Maryland's three-term attorney general to seek drastic action. He'd like private handgun ownership restricted to law-enforcement officers, legitimate gun collectors and those who need guns for security reasons.

That's unlikely to happen, but Mr. Curran's announcement has reignited this volatile issue in Maryland. Gun-control advocates are going so far as to call gun ownership a God-given right. The attorney general got their attention.

Mr. Curran long has been a proponent of handgun control. He also took a public stand against the war in Vietnam in the 1960s, when that position wasn't wildly popular among his constituents in Northeast Baltimore.

And Mr. Curran, a Roman Catholic, didn't hesitate to support abortion-rights bills in the state Senate -- even though priests and other anti-abortion protesters camped out on his front lawn.

Courage, though, won't be enough to ban private handgun ownership. Even Mr. Curran seems to concede that he is echoing a sentiment, not a practical plan of action. Some of his other suggestions face far brighter prospects.

For instance, stiffer requirements for purchasing a handgun seem a logical -- and necessary -- step. Mandatory training is also long overdue. Requiring some type of child-safety lock on all guns sold in Maryland is another sensible step.

Mr. Curran's pronouncement ensures that gun control will be on the front burner during next year's General Assembly session. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has his heart set on passing legislation requiring "smart-gun" technology that would prevent handguns from being fired by anyone except their owners. That effort now seems tame compared with the attorney general's broadside.

Good news from Indonesia

New leaders: Something like democracy prevailed and now faces daunting challenges of economy.

THE MOSTLY peaceful revolution in the streets of Indonesia in May 1998 may turn into one of democracy's greatest success stories, although it faces obstacles aplenty.

The artful political contraption known as the People's Consultative Assembly did not merely mask the retention of power by the army clique around General Wiranto and the Golkar Party of the fallen dictator Suharto. Many Indonesians feared it would.

Nor did it hand executive power to the election plurality winner, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the opaque heroine of the impoverished and daughter of the founder of independence, Sukarno.

Instead, it created a team with broad support, and a president whose party came in only fourth in the June election, but who is a widely admired, unifying figure. Since President Abdurrahman Wahid has suffered a stroke that left him frail, the vice president looms large as chief operational officer and successor. And as that is the popular Megawati who is satisfied with the arrangement and friendly with Mr. Wahid, it appears this arrangement can work.

Mr. Wahid is a respected Muslim scholar and popular civic leader with an ecumenical dimension. If not too many people's first choice, he may have been everyone's second. While his health holds, he can provide cover while Megawati, who has no governmental or administrative experience and only recent political activity, learns the ropes.

They need to calm Indonesia down, accept East Timor's independence, fulfill IMF requirements for a transparent banking system, protect ethnic and religious minorities, keep the army content, restart economic growth and make the experiment in democracy succeed into permanence.

The hapless B. J. Habibie, the henchman of deposed dictator Suharto who failed to distance himself while interim president, is the loser in the politicking. He is also the hero of the transition to a more democratic society that made his defeat possible and peaceful.

Pub Date: 10/23/99

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