By Thomas W. Hazlett
President Clinton is casting about for his legacy. When you look at his accomplishments--rescuing Haitian democracy, resurrecting George Bush's five-year budget plan, saving Social Security and Medicare from reforms that might unfairly slash the tax rate for future Americans below 84 percent--you've got to marvel at how the whole system just keeps on purring. Indeed, since November 1994, the Dow has increased from under 4,000 to around 8,000, arguably the greatest bull run in history. And no one can say that Clinton wasn't the magician who produced the impossible: a Republican Congress.
But Clinton will be remembered for even more profound changes: He has redrawn the rules of the political game itself. It used to be that if you got caught redhanded, you were ashamed--and you were gone.
Thanks to Clinton, however, disclosure of unethical behavior--from a $100,000 bribe for then-Gov. Clinton laundered through Hillary's pork bellies account, to shaking down Indian tribes for campaign cash, to a national security adviser's failing to unload stock shares that violated ethics rules, to a sitting president's breaking campaign finance laws by agreeing to set aside $1 million to pay Federal Election Commission fines (signing off on the memo with a most descriptive "ugh")--just doesn't pack the same wallop. Clinton's ability to bob and weave--and to let his opponents punch themselves out--has allowed him to lead "the most ethical administration in history" by a revolutionary moral standard.
Here's a brief synopsis of Clinton's ethical legacy, a string of rationalizations for opportunism which have turned humiliation into ho-hum.
1. No controlling legal authority. You laughed--but it worked! Despite the testimony of one irate Democratic mark who dubbed White House-based phone calls a "shakedown," this was the fig leaf our Accomplice General Janet Reno donned to let the vice president and the president slide after violating the plain language of the statute prohibiting fund raising on federal property.
2. Personal foibles are off-limits. The press now dutifully reports that "womanizing" (expansively defined to encompass on-the-job solicitation of subordinates) is a matter of personal preference--a private issue for the First Couple. But, alas, these politicos keep pushing their family stories on us. These days, Bill boasts of Chelsea no less than Hillary, and who can forget tobacco farmer Al strategically recounting his sister's cancer death at the Democratic Convention in '96?
3. Who cares about Arkansas? There's a brand new statute of limitations: If you get elected president, all crimes committed prior to the election get wiped clean. Poor Spiro Agnew, getting busted on that petty theft as governor--of a small Southern state, no less.
4. Even if we did sell access, contributors weren't given anything of value. Donors like Roger Tamraz, various Indian tribes, and Johnnie Chung (who likened the White House to a toll gate) tell a different tale. The administration claims that the influence seekers who forked out millions to the Clinton-Gore '96 effort were just plain suckers. Right. And Al Capone was a legit businessman who just forgot to pay his taxes.
5. According to the polls, no one cares about political scandals. A groundswell of concern cannot logically precede revelations of skullduggery. The media must first expose and excoriate the banditos--which they have not done, citing the lack of public interest!
6. It's the economy, stupid. The received wisdom is that the citizenry is fat and happy: Why care about political shenanigans when fourth quarter GDP growth is above 3 percent? If only the Teapot Domers had thought of that.
7. These charges of wrongdoing are thinly veiled attacks by Republican partisans! Excellent point--as is the precisely opposite point that charges of Republican partisanship are pure Democratic partisanship.
8. The bumpkin defense. In violation of every administrative protection an innocent citizen has against his government, 900 FBI files are purloined and quarantined in the office of a political dirty trickster in charge of opposition research. Clinton's winning defense: It was just an "honest bureaucratic snafu."
9. All this illegal fund raising proves the need for campaign finance reform. Swallowed whole by the "watchdogs" of the press, this line suggests more than an "honest bureaucratic snafu." It declares: Passing laws is the business of government--not abiding by them.
10. Everybody does it. There's not a teenager in America who hasn't tried this one, but usually only those who grow up to be featured on America's Most Wanted actually get away with it.
11. It's nothing like Watergate. Well, Watergate was nothing like Watergate until people talked, subpoenas were answered, and the tapes played.
12. Prove it! As indictments and convictions mount, big shots above the Webb Hubbells and Mike Espys remain tough nuts to crack, especially when a code of silence kicks in. As FBI Director Louis Freeh observed last year during campaign finance hearings, he had seen so many witnesses flee the country or take the Fifth only once before in his career: when looking into organized crime.
The president promised to bring the American people change. Promise kept. Legacy claimed.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California at Davis.
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