NASHVILLE — Declaring that both political parties "have a moral obligation" to clean up American politics, Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown on Friday called on his Republican counterpart, Lee Atwater, to join him in drafting guidelines to govern the conduct of campaigns.
With his statement, Brown appeared to be trying to seize the initiative on the issue of ethics, which Republican strategists have been planning to use to cut into the Democratic majorities in Congress, particularly the House of Representatives.
Brown's assertion that "voters are sick and tired of attacks, dirty tricks, phony phone banks and rumormongers" was issued at a national strategy session here for Democratic state chairmen.
Refers to China
"I cannot remember a time when it has been more dispiriting to be called a political professional," Brown said. Referring to the dissent and violence in China, he declared: "When students are willing to die in Tian An Men Square for democracy, we have a moral obligation to raise the standard of conduct in American politics."
Atwater, presiding over the Republican National Committee's spring meeting Friday in Washington, did not respond directly to Brown's proposal to meet. Instead, he promised to send Brown a copy of Bush's ethics recommendations, issued in April, which called for more stringent financial disclosure by federal officials and restrictions on lobbying.
"If he is in agreement (with Bush)," Atwater said, "then we may indeed have a need to sit down and discuss the issue."
Brown's statement came in the wake of a series of controversies over the uses and abuses of political power. Two top Democratic congressional leaders--House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and Democratic House Whip Tony Coelho of Merced--have resigned after charges of abuse of office, while, on the other hand, prominent Republicans, including President Bush, have been forced to denounce some of the tactics used by the GOP against the Democrats.
Underlying these controversies was the GOP battle plan, which called the Wright and Coelho cases evidence of a moral corruption stemming from the long-term Democratic domination of the House. Some GOP strategists had coined the term "imperial Congress" to dramatize their case.
The strategy has outraged some Democrats. "They are trying to poison the atmosphere up on (Capitol Hill) so that a lot of people will just decide it's easier to stay home than stay in Congress," said Richard Moe, a veteran Democratic strategist.
But then last week the Republicans made themselves victims of their own zeal, when a memo was circulated bearing the imprimatur of the Republican National Committee. It seemed to imply that Rep. Thomas S. Foley, chosen by the Democrats to replace Wright as Speaker, was a homosexual.
Foley immediately denied the charge. But the memo caused such shock waves among members of both parties that the national committee staffer who supposedly authored it resigned, Atwater apologized to Foley, Bush pronounced himself "disgusted" with the memo and reportedly rebuked Atwater and Brown and other Democrats demanded Atwater's resignation.
Since then, the GOP attack has been blunted. The Republicans have been notably silent about the controversy over the award of a lucrative contract for operating a gift shop at Los Angeles International Airport to Betty Dixon, wife of Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Ethics Committee.
Did Not Meet Requirement
Dixon's wife was awarded the contract under a government-run program to help minorities and women in business, even though it is alleged that she did not meet the program's requirement for hands-on management of the enterprise.
Republicans have "no stomach" for going after Dixon right now, one normally aggressive GOP tactician told a reporter. Another explained: "We're in a period of conciliation."
Meanwhile, Atwater has become a favored target of Democrats. A memo prepared by Democratic National Committee staffers and distributed at the Nashville meeting praised party officials in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and New Jersey for having done "a great job" in helping generate publicity "about Atwater's smear tactics" in their states.
Atwater won a vote of confidence from the Republican National Committee Friday for his "aggressive" leadership, which the confidence resolution said had made him "the target of unremitting attacks from Democrats and their surrogates."
But in his remarks to the RNC Friday, Atwater avoided the sort of slashing partisan attack that has been his hallmark, and he, instead, accentuated the positive, pledging to help the Republican Party achieve majority status in the next 10 years through intensive grass-roots campaign work.
Staff writers Josh Getlin and Robert Jackson contributed to this story.