The Republican Party has spent the last four years gloating and giggling over the Clinton scandals—draft evasion, Whitewater, Travelgate, Vince Foster, the Rose law firm, Waco, Ron Brown, Henry Cisneros, Hillary, the illegal naturalization of aliens, the Lincoln Bedroom, legally and ethically dubious campaign contributions both foreign and domestic, and (gasp, wheeze), any number of grotesque sexual rendezvous in which Mr. Clinton may or may not have involved himself. Nevertheless, as we have come to expect from the Stupid Party, the Republicans have blown it.
Not only has all the GOP’s scandalmongering distracted many conservatives and the party itself from more substantive criticisms of the Clinton administration and more serious debate of major issues of national policy, but the Republicans failed even to make good political use of the myriad moral flaws they uncovered. The Clinton scandals barely rippled the stagnant surfaces of last year’s presidential campaign, and incredibly the Dole-Kemp ticket bubbled beneath the political waves while the ship of the Clintonian state sailed proudly on.
One of the main reasons the Republicans muffed the scandal issue is that the party has handled them in ways that are transparently political and utterly void of any pretense of moral seriousness. Mr. Clinton, his wife, and the gang of desperadoes with whom he has surrounded himself and his administration have served mainly as the butts of conservative and Republican gloating. Only seldom has a conservative or party spokesman expressed anything approximating authentic moral outrage. Mr. Clinton and his camorra may have been useful for the conservative bumper-sticker industry and televised soundbites for Republican congressmen, but never have the Republicans or the several conservative pundits who have ranted about the Clinton wickednesses managed to cloak themselves in the moralistic pomposity of a Sam Ervin or a Frank Church in an earlier era of scandal-hunting.
Yet there may be rather darker reasons for Republican ineptitude in making the ethical and perhaps legal failings of the Clintonians an effective political issue. That reason is that the Republicans themselves do not have hands that are particularly clean.
Thus, Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, which is examining allegations of improper campaign fundraising, turns out to have been a bit of a high-roller himself when it came to rolling in the campaign clover. In April, it was revealed that Mr. Burton is the proud consumer of considerably more campaign cabbage from foreign donors than from those of his own Hoosier State.
Donors from Indiana fetched up only a lousy $42,490 for the grand purpose of reelecting Mr. Burton, but their zeal for him was dimmed by the generosity of the congressman’s foreign constituents. The boys from South of the Border— the Indiana border, at least—gave him $67,550; that sum came from Florida, or, more precisely, from the pockets of Cuban and Nicaraguan exiles who now inhabit the Sunshine State. Mr. Burton also fished up $14,000 from Puerto Rico, not to mention what press reports say is “thousands more” from Sikh-Americans and Pakistani-Americans. All told, 84 percent of his large individual donations came from outside his state. Mr. Burton, as it turns out, is an assiduous foe of Fidel Castro and was a strong supporter of the Nicaraguan Contras of yore. Nothing wrong with that, but now that we know where his campaign funds came from, it does raise the chicken-and-egg problem: Which came first, Mr. Burton’s commitment to Latin American anticommunist causes, or campaign funds from Latin American anticommunist causes?
A federal grand jury has been scrutinizing Mr. Burton, but he’s not the only Republican who needs it. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now reduced to a political cipher, has also managed to keep the quality of his character in the eye of public controversy. Not only did the House for which he speaks conclude he had committed ethical lapses and fine him the tidy sum of $300,000, but Mr. Gingrich, after some months of hemming and haggling, contrived to pay it by getting a loan from good ol’ Bob Dole himself. This loan is supposedly so arranged that all legal and financial niceties (including appropriate interest payments) will be observed, but the deal is just a bit too cute. Why, if Mr. Gingrich really needs a loan, can’t he just go to a bank or some other professional commercial lender? Mr. Dole himself, whose pathetic television ads for VISA have managed to make him an even bigger ass since losing the election than he was when he lost it, is now a member of a major Washington law and lobbying firm. Does the money he’s lending Mr. Gingrich come from his new firm’s clients, and if so, will those clients someday call on Mr. Dole or Mr. Gingrich?
“Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do me a service in return,” says Mario Puzo’s Don Vito Corleone to Amerigo Bonasera, the hapless undertaker whose burning thirst for vengeance on his daughter’s attackers at last pulls him into the Godfather’s web of crime after a lifetime of resisting it. The Godfather knew how the world works, that no one—even he—ever gets something for nothing. After four years of ridiculing and ranting about Mr. Clinton for the ethical vacuum in his heart, the Republicans still have got nothing from it, but the jury, grand or not, is still out on what they will have to give in return on the day the new godfathers they’ve chosen to serve call in their favors.