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Jewish World Review Jan. 24, 2002 / 11 Shevat, 5762

Matt Towery

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Consumer Reports

Secrets of the past can often provide guidance for dealing with the future -- TWO weeks ago, this column suggested that the Enron debacle might prove far more politically dangerous for George W. Bush than GOP insiders were admitting at the time. The column suggested the Bush administration should get more proactive with the situation by announcing an aggressive policy to protect shareholders in publicly traded companies, and to require greater disclosure of possible corporate financial problems before they reach critical mass.

Just a day after this assessment was published, the White House announced it would seek to introduce just such an "investors' protection" legislative package. And that's great, as far as it goes. But the early insensitivity to the gravity of the issue by both the White House and SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt has contributed to the president's vulnerability to a popularity drop in the polls. And it hasn't helped matters to have Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother and an otherwise bright and effective governor, attend a fund-raiser with the former leader of Enron right in the middle of the crisis.

This whole mess has all the potential in the world of becoming the Iran-Contra, Whitewater, Monica-type quagmire that often paralyzes otherwise popular leaders.

But hold on there, Democrats. Before either Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., or former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who is running against Gov. Bush in Florida, get too excited about this potential reversal of political fortunes, they should think back. Just a few years ago, the Republicans thought they had a sure-fire scandal that would translate into big election victories.

Here, finally is the real story of how the GOP blew the 1998 congressional elections, and who was really responsible for the disastrous handling of Bill Clinton's impeachment as a campaign issue, especially in the last days before voters went to the polls.

The Republicans' critical lapse in judgment was to release, months before the November 1998 election, the entire contents of Kenneth Starr's report on the alleged misdeeds of President Clinton. This early and complete disclosure was the equivalent of a prosecutor disclosing his entire case in the opening arguments of a trial. There was no drama left, and swing voters lost interest by election time.

Later, in the final days of the '98 campaign, a generic Republican ad, created for House candidates, pounded Democrats by directly referencing the impeachment trial that was thought to be coming. But its effect was to turn off moderate swing Republican voters. More importantly, it also energized African-Americans to come out in big numbers to support President Clinton by voting Democratic.

Fingers of blame were immediately pointed at then-House speaker Newt Gingrich, and he never openly refuted involvement in the creation of the ads. As a result, he and his Republican colleagues nearly lost the House, and Gingrich's days as speaker were numbered.

Gingrich had tried on several occasions to persuade his Republican colleagues that an attempt to win Congress by exploiting the Clinton scandal might backfire and would deliver few votes.

But a handful of GOP extremists, whose collective political wisdom amounted to that of the 1964 Goldwater operation, joined with other party operatives and launched the Clinton attack ad without Gingrich's approval. This story has never before been revealed.

The question now for Tom Daschle and the Democrats is whether they are targeting the wrong man with a deluge of innuendo and specious connections. The Democratic leadership should think twice before pounding the Bush administration without first considering the consequences suffered by the loyal opposition a few years ago.

That doesn't necessarily mean that Bush advisers and political allies aren't heading for trouble, as outlined in this column two weeks ago. If they continue to fall into the trap of allowing themselves to be associated with what appears to be one of the great financial rip-offs in modern times, they could still give the Democrats the political edge they need. The bet here is that both the president and his brother will have the good sense to separate the oil from the water and toss aside once and for all any associates who are responsible for Enron's collapse.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate