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There's Some Reason to Hope That Politics by Scandal Is on the Wane

Satisfaction with the economy helps explain why voters are less receptive to ethical attacks.

November 30, 1998|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Of all the trends in modern American politics, none has been more destructive or dispiriting than the emergence of the permanent scandal state. In the quarter century since Watergate, it has become routine for each party to try to destroy the leaders of the other by attacking their ethics on the job, their morals at home--or both. At every turn, the press has followed the parties step for step, trumpeting each new allegation and digging tirelessly for new ones.

The swirl of charge and countercharge has reached a crescendo with the Republican drive to impeach President Clinton for trying to conceal his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. But now that the impeachment effort is faltering, there's reason to hope that the entire ugly cycle of ethical obliteration may finally lose some momentum as well.

It would be naive to assume an end to the political manipulation of scandal. "The whole scandal process is so deeply ingrained in the system, and is so frequently used by the players, that I'm not certain they will give it up easily or willingly," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, author of a book on political scandal-mongering. But it is difficult to interpret the stunning Democratic gains in last month's election as anything but a public cry of outrage against a capital that is now producing subpoenas faster than ideas. And that backlash may force both sides, but especially congressional Republicans, to lower the temperature in the ethics wars, at least for a while. "If there was a loser in this election," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, "it was government by investigation."

Clinton's recovery isn't the only evidence for that conclusion. Around the country, most major candidates who faced ethical attacks this year won their campaigns. The National Republican Congressional Committee ran ads in five races accusing Democrats of ethical misdeeds; each of those five Democrats won. In the Illinois governor's race, Democrat Glenn Poshard fiercely attacked Republican George Ryan for his efforts to secure clemency for a convicted murderer 25 years ago; Ryan won easily. So did Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), even after admitting an affair with a married man.

Democratic consultant Bob Doyle cautions that it's simplistic to conclude that scandal has entirely lost its sting; Doyle's client, Democrat Ken Lucas in Kentucky, pounded his Republican rival over a series of ethical missteps en route to a convincing victory in a conservative House district. But Lucas was very much the exception in a year when voters declined almost every invitation to judge candidates solely by their failings. "What was once a fatal bullet," says Sabato, "has now become nothing more than a pinprick."

Satisfaction with the economy helps explain why voters are less receptive to ethical attacks. But the key reason is that these charges have become so pervasive. In the 1980s, Democrats tried to unseat Ronald Reagan by running against the alleged "sleaze factor" in his administration. Later, House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich battered the entrenched Democratic majority by arguing that they were endemically corrupt; when Gingrich won the speakership in 1995, Democrats immediately forced an ethics investigation of him. From Clarence Thomas to U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, it has become common for opponents to attack presidential nominees not on their beliefs but on their behavior.

This relentless and nihilistic warfare--what author E.J. Dionne has termed "the politics of moral annihilation"--escalated to an entirely new level with the emergence of Bill Clinton in 1992. Pyramids were built with less energy than Republicans devoted to unearthing and publicizing allegations against him.

Partly because Clinton gives his enemies so many targets, there has rarely been a moment in his presidency when critics were not demanding a special prosecutor for one alleged offense or another. (Seven have already been appointed, and, even after rejecting an investigation of Vice President Al Gore last week, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno must still decide whether to appoint two others.) And, in the past two years, Gingrich deployed House committees to investigate so many allegations against the administration that the GOP had to create a special "reserve fund" to pay for all the overlapping inquiries. Last summer, House Democrats counted 38 active investigations into everything from using government computers for political purposes to lobbying by former aides to Gore.

In theory, the House can relaunch any or all of those probes next year, even after the drive to remove Clinton inevitably runs aground, either in the House or the Senate. But inside the GOP, many fear that it would be a recipe for disaster to respond to the voter backlash against the Lewinsky investigation by simply gearing up a new set of investigations.

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