Losing It

Losing It

Losing It

Politics and policy.
Oct. 19 1996 3:30 AM

Losing It

Republicans are becoming unhinged at the prospect of defeat.

Bob Dole, at least, seems to have wrestled with his conscience before opting to launch bitter attacks on President Clinton's "character." That does not appear to be the case with Newt Gingrich. "On Inauguration Day, they're breaking the law and doing drugs," Gingrich told an audience at a restaurant in Roswell, Ga., a few days ago, referring to unspecified members of the Clinton administration. "Two days later, they're in the White House. This must be the most disciplined set of addicts in the world, because none of them has ever used drugs once since they joined the White House staff." The accusation that the White House is filled with drug addicts is a classic political smear--ugly, utterly unsubstantiated, and almost certainly false.

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It's understandable, of course, that conservative frustration levels should be running high these days. For a party that thought it was leading an unstoppable revolution less than two years ago, it can't be much fun to be saddled with an old gray mare of a presidential candidate like Dole, or to be faced with the possibility of losing control of Congress to an opposition they believe to be not just wrong, but on the wrong side of history. That said, many Republicans are acting like sore losers already, becoming unhinged--there's really no other word for it--at the prospect of a Democratic resurrection. Some--including, in recent days, the Republican nominee himself--are drumming up scandal in such a biased and hypocritical way that they risk sacrificing both their credibility and their dignity for the sake of a lost cause.

Jacob Weisberg Jacob Weisberg
Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent.

The charges are flying fast and furious--misappropriated FBI files, drugs, even "money laundering." Bill Bennett said a few days ago that a second Clinton term could produce "something like we went through in the Watergate era," adding, "I believe this administration is one of the most corrupt in recent American history." Only the weaselly qualifications--something like ... one of ... recent--save this remark from transparent falsehood (by leaving it meaningless). But the implicit comparison to Watergate is a shoddy historical absurdity, coming from Mr. Intellectual Standards.

In the last week, Dole and his surrogates have focused on two new issues that purport to embody the flawed ethics of the administration. What these lines of attack have in common is that for all the hysteria with which they are being expressed, they have yielded little evidence of presidential misbehavior, let alone deep problems of "character."

The most recent, and bitter accusation has to do with campaign contributions from Asians. Here's Gingrich again, speaking on MeetthePress just after the LosAngelesTimes broke the story that an Indonesian couple had given nearly half a million dollars in soft money to the Democratic Party: "This makes Watergate look tiny," Gingrich said. "I mean, this is a potential abuse of the American system on behalf of an Indonesian billionaire in a way we have never seen in American history." The speaker's wording was sly as ever--what isn't a "potential" abuse? Dole's campaign manager, Scott Reed, used the same weaselly language when he issued a statement attacking the "administration's potentially criminal actions in squeezing money out of the Indonesian Lippo conglomerate," going on to ask the president, "Why have you used U.S. foreign policy in Indonesia as a fund-raising tool to help secure illegal campaign contributions from a foreigner?" Dole himself then scored the administration for failing to answer this and other when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife questions. In fact, reporters who have been trying very hard to unearth evidence that the contributions were illegal, or that the Clintons' connection to the Riady clan has had an effect on American foreign policy, have so far come up empty-handed.

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Of course, it would be nice if we lived in a country where the political parties were not allowed to take half-a-million-dollar contributions from anyone. Under our current system of campaign finance, however, the Indonesian connection is merely and sadly typical. As recently as the last presidential election, Republicans faced a similar embarrassment when Michael Kojima, a Japanese businessman, gave them $500,000 which, it turned out, he owed to creditors and in child-support payments. Neither the Democrats nor the press made nearly this big a deal about it. Since contributions from foreign nationals residing here legally are allowed, it's hard to see what--other than a whiff of yellow peril in this case--distinguishes them from big donations by domestic interests. (William Safire has been carrying on about "rich aliens" in a truly ugly way.) The Democratic Party did accept, and subsequently return, an apparently illegal contribution in a separate instance, from a South Korean businessman who lacked a green card. But then, returning funny money is par for the course in presidential campaigns. Back during the primaries, Dole accepted and returned $27,000 in illegally bundled money from a company called AquaLeisure, whose chief has since pleaded guilty to two felony charges in the case.

The real difference between foreign and domestic soft money seems to be that American companies get better value in exchange. Dole's biggest backers include the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, the agribusiness concern whose executives recently pleaded guilty to price fixing, and the Gallo wine family. In those instances, unlike in the Indonesian one, there is strong evidence of a quid pro quo, or at least mutual back-scratching. Dole has done explicit and valuable favors for both companies, sponsoring the notorious ethanol boondoggle for ADM, and helping the Gallos (who have given various Dole organizations more than $1 million since 1986) with family-specific tax breaks and regulatory fixes. For some reason, no one considers these to be Dole "character" issues. If Dole were ahead and Clinton behind, there's little doubt that the details of these relationships would now be front-page news. But, being the underdog, Dole is so immune to such assaults that he can send out Charlie Black--whose professional specialty is lobbying on behalf of corrupt Third World dictators like the late Ferdinand Marcos--to spin the press on how the Democratic Party's taking Indonesian money demonstrates Bill Clinton's flawed character.

The campaign contributions are at least in the realm of the troublesome. The pardon fuss, on other hand, is simply absurd. "Here's how to succeed in obstructing justice," William Safire wrote in a recent column in the NewYorkTimes. "1) publicly disparage all investigators as partisan miscreants, as Clinton now does; 2) encourage co-conspirators to resist prosecutorial pressure by arranging for hush money; and 3) hint at post-election pardons." The only problem here is that 2) is an unsupported fantasy, and that 3) is simply wrong. Clinton has done nothing to hint at pardons. He has never brought the matter up publicly, and there's no evidence he's done so in private. When asked, he's said he hasn't thought about it and won't discuss it.

In the first presidential debate, Dole comically demanded that Clinton say "no comment" when asked about pardons, which is more or less precisely what Clinton has done. Dole later changed his position and demanded that Clinton explicitly promise to rule out pardons if re-elected. "He better make it very clear--no pardons, no pardons to anybody he did business with who may be in jail," Dole said on the eve of the final debate. Dole's spokesman justified this turnaround by arguing that Clinton had obviated his "no comment" with an answer (a couple of weeks earlier) on the News Hour With Jim Lehrer.

Here's what Clinton actually said: "My position would be that their cases should be handled like others, they should go through--there's a regular process for that, and I have regular meetings on that, and I review those cases as they come up after there's an evaluation done by the Justice Department." In no significant way does that comment differ from a "no comment." Of course, a no-pardon promise would be meaningless; Clinton could simply break it on his last day of office. And if his character is as bad as some Republicans contend, there's no reason for them to think he would hesitate to do so. It might also be pointed out that Dole supported the political pardons meted out by Gerald Ford, when he served as Ford's running mate in 1976. Likewise in 1992, he applauded the Bush administration's lame-duck pardons of Caspar Weinberger, Elliott Abrams, et al.

"These people are so power-hungry and so shameless they'll do anything to win," Dole said at a rally in Glendale, Calif., the day after the debate (before leading the audience in the chant: "It's Our Money, It's Our Money, It's Our Money"). It's hard to say whether this is really true of Bill Clinton. But in the closing days of the campaign, it stands as an apt description of his faltering Republican opponents.