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SOFT MONEY BAN IS STEP ONE

Rep. Rick A. Lazio and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton haven't agreed on much during their New York senatorial campaigns, so it's no surprise it took a lot of last-minute bickering to reach a deal on a soft-money ban. It's relatively little and fairly late, but it is welcome, nevertheless.

Soft-money spending does far too much to shape campaigns in the wrong way. It provides a pool of cash for negative attack campaign ads, and helps shift the public focus off substantive debate. It provides at best the appearance, and at worst the reality, that political influence is for sale.

By law, however much abraded in the interpretation, political contributions channeled through political-party committees and outside groups can't advocate election of a specific candidate. That sort of thing is paid for by the "hard money" contributed directly to candidates in strictly limited amounts.

What soft-money ads can do is advocate a specific issue or tear down an opponent. Too often, mud-slinging is what the parties choose to do. And there's no limit on the size of the soft-money donations anyone or any organization can make.

Given that last fact, we should be grateful that both Lazio and Clinton have sworn off the politician's natural addiction to soft money, at least as far as political soft-money committees are concerned. If this pact lasts, it's a step that should mean New York voters will get more chances to listen to the candidates define themselves, and fewer to see opposing political forces try to distort their positions.

Both candidates also have said they will ask the independent groups that support them to stop running radio and television commercials. Although such groups certainly have the right to focus on their core issues during crucial election campaigns, their guarantees of free speech should not become simply a license for political parties to wage expensive indirect wars. Voluntary restraint is a proper way to go.

Candidates' claims that they have no control over such advertising may be technically true, but they should have enough influence to make their preferences stick. No office-seeker who can't control his or her own campaign deserves a chance to share control of the country. At the very least, Lazio and Clinton can repudiate what they can't get revoked.

Their agreement on a soft-money ban at this stage of the campaign should at least push the Republican and Democratic Party elections committees into the background, and return some of the emphasis to proposals and promises rather than sneers and attacks.

That's a good thing, but the need for this agreement also points out the need for more such agreements. Campaign finance reform can't be done on a case-by-case, campaign-by-campaign basis. Systemwide reform must become part of the elections process, so that ideas and not donations can dominate all campaigns.

The Clinton-Lazio agreement in New York should be watched carefully. If it works, it offers hope that the original goals of direct campaign-donation limits can be reached without crippling the airing of issues and the free exchange of views in America's marketplace of ideas.

If this deal becomes a model, voters will win - no matter who emerges as the victor in this November's elections.

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