WASHINGTON — The ethics mess now embroiling Washington isn't about integrity. It's a potential--but reversible--civil war between Republicans and Democrats to solve a question that 20 years of national elections have never answered: Who's running the federal government?
Temporary or genuine peacemaking may prevail, yet with the potential stakes so high and so many controversies in the news--rumor mongering about new House Speaker Thomas S. Foley; FBI investigations touching House Democratic Caucus Chairman William H. Gray III; demands by some Democrats for George Bush to sack street-fighter Lee Atwater as GOP national chairman; congressional investigation of a possible major GOP scandal in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Senate Democrats' whipsawing of Bush Administration nominees with Iran-Contra linkages--it won't be easy for either side to back down. And that's how some of history's bloodiest wars have started: mobilization provoked a counter-mobilization--and nobody was willing to retreat.
The growing incidence of military and "warfare" rhetoric gives a better clue to party anger. Earlier Democratic complaints about unfair 1988 Bush attacks on Michael S. Dukakis didn't reflect ethics as much as frustration at again losing the presidency, while Democratic refusal to confirm John Tower as defense secretary drew on a desire to teach the White House a lesson. In turn, the GOP effort to drive out House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas drew on a strategy to win House control by identifying the Democratic majority with corruption. Possible Democratic counterattacks--against GOP House Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia on ethical grounds and the Bush Administration over unanswered Iran-Contra scandal questions--will be no less political.
Excessive attention to ethics misses the critical context of institutional hostility. During most of the Republic's 200 years, the party in the White House also controlled Congress, but over the last four decades, a complicating split emerged. When Bush's term ends in 1993, the GOP will have controlled the White House for 20 of the last 24 years and 28 of the preceding 40. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Democrats will have controlled the Senate for 32 years out of 40 and the House for 38 of the last 40.
This cleavage frustrates people in both parties and the heightened frustrations of 1988 laid the groundwork for 1989 acrimony. Democrats, who saw Republicans destroy Dukakis' 17-point lead with a more professional organization--to say nothing of Atwater's vaunted dirty campaign tactics--began to wonder how they could ever win the White House. The Republicans, for their part, again saw Democrats hold lopsided control of Congress--gaining in the House and Senate despite Bush's victory. In despair of ever winning the House, they began hypothesizing a new and dark excuse: Dishonest congressional Democrats had become entrenched through state-level gerrymandering and "institutionalized corruption" to extort campaign funds in Washington.
This is the real-world context of the Capital's crocodile tears about ethics. Senior GOP strategists, including Atwater, Gingrich and Edward J. Rollins, GOP Congressional Committee co-chairman, have a blueprint for winning control of the House. They focus not on issues but on drowning Democratic congressmen in dirt. Wright's resignation was a milestone, but even earlier this year, Atwater established a special $1-million "opposition research" unit under Mark W. Goodin, with 40 staffers assigned to collect damaging information on hundreds of Democratic congressional incumbents and candidates. Goodin, however, was the official forced to resign early this month. He had to take responsibility for the RNC memo about Foley "coming out of the liberal closet"--likening Foley's voting record to that of Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, an admitted homosexual.
Democrats also mix hypocrisy with ethical bluster. Frank has threatened to reveal homosexuals among GOP congressional ranks. One central reason for Democrats not confirming Tower as defense secretary was to reveal Bush's ineffectiveness, by making him the first newly elected President to have a Cabinet nominee rejected by Congress. And Democratic desire to camouflage the ethics resignation of Wright with a similar investigation of Gingrich pivots on transparent "so's your old man" politics.
The Democrats, in turn, have their own political interest in using their congressional leverage--from committee investigations to Senate confirmation proceedings--to display the ineffectiveness, corruption or deceit of the Executive Branch. Three areas now seem to head the list.