Perhaps the last thing most Americans want to see is the appointment of another independent counsel in Washington. Yet, as we've argued for nearly two years, that's exactly what's needed to get to the bottom of the misuse of party money during the '96 election.
The need has grown, not faded, with the passage of time. Most recently, The New York Times reported the existence of a memo, written in late 1995, which suggests Vice President Al Gore may have known about plans to use so-called "soft money" - raised for general "party building" - for the very "hard" purpose of reelecting himself and President Clinton.
Admittedly, the definitions involved here border on the absurd. Mr. Gore's defense, and the reason Attorney General Janet Reno has not seen fit to appoint a special counsel in his case or others, is that he was raising only soft dollars for the party - rather than money that would go into his, or others', campaigns to be used for political ads, etc. But it is hard to believe that the vice president or Democratic Party officials considered those dollars untouchable for anything but get-out-the-vote drives and other such party exercises.
The same point applies to the Republicans, who raised even more soft money during the '96 campaign and spent much of it on broadcast ads that were clearly intended to boost their candidate and hurt the opposition. What else is political money for?
But political money, flowing from powerful interests like corporations and unions, creates relationships and carries with it the inevitable aura of influence-buying. Why else has this country had laws prohibiting direct campaign contributions from unions and corporations for most of this century? There are also laws limiting what individuals can contribute and limiting what presidential candidates can spend if they accept public funds. All were violated by the soft-money manipulations of two years ago.
Ms. Reno is reportedly reconsidering her refusal to appoint an independent counsel. The 1995 memo may help spur the reconsideration. There's also the possibility of a counsel probe of the fund-raising activities of Democratic operative Harold Ickes, who was chief liaison between the White House and the party.
If a counsel is appointed, his mandate ought to include possible campaign-finance wrongdoing by both parties. What the country needs to know is not whether it entered the vice president's mind that he might be raising money in his own cause. But whether his party, and the other, crassly ignored the limits built into electoral law - limits that have the crucial purpose of preventing corruption.