Hearings on Politics As Usual

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This summer's big congressional investigations -- the Senate exploration into President Clinton's Whitewater problems and the House examination of the bungled 1993 federal attack on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas -- are a double-edged blade for the Republicans in charge.

If the party follows its previous pattern, the Republican-run investigations will wound the Democrats somewhat -- but they also could partly backfire on the Republicans.

Meanwhile, Washington is returning to neo-gridlock as the GOP "revolution" stalls. With a dozen wannabes already in motion, 1996 presidential politicking is already gumming up the Potomac like an oil spill. And with voter perceptions of politics-as-usual starting to resume, public discontent is again approaching incendiary levels. A record number of potential independent or third-party candidates are waiting to see if the Republicans and Democrats fail simultaneously. And both congressional investigations could wind up furthering national disillusionment.

Still, Republican enthusiasm is predictable. In the last 60 years, the GOP has held Congress so infrequently that, whenever it gets control, the party's desire to investigate and embarrass Democratic administrations is fierce.

Two prime examples are the anti-communist probes of 1947-48 by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the famous follow-up McCarthy Senate hearings of 1953-54. Both touched on some legitimate issues: The Democratic Roosevelt and Truman administrations hadn't been careful enough in dealing with Soviet spies and infiltration. But the GOP was often too strident and careless. Neither investigation helped Republicans much; in each case, the Democrats recaptured Congress the next election.

These current GOP congressional probes into Whitewater and Waco come at a time when they could matter. Only one-third of the GOP's "Contract with America" is likely to wind up on the statute books, and insiders already see the Republicans' controversial federal budget revision headed for an autumn train wreck. A successful investigation could be an important catalyst.

But Waco alone isn't likely to have much political impact. True, federal authorities clearly bungled the attack on the Branch Davidian compound, and one American out of three already calls it a mistake. However, the investigating Republicans have their own Achilles' heel: controversial pre-hearings collaboration with the National Rifle Association, plus an image of being too close to right-wing cults, militias and firearms hoarders.

Whitewater could be a different story. Americans tell pollsters the Republicans are playing politics here -- of course, they are -- but voters also support the investigation by 55 percent-65 percent majorities because they're convinced the Clintons have something to hide and haven't been telling the truth.

In fact, the House and Senate inquiries have already turned up some significant evidence: that Hillary Rodham Clinton's commodity speculation had a link to Whitewater, and testimony by a Secret Service agent that, right after White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s suicide, Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, Maggie Williams, removed several folders of papers from Foster's office -- though Ms. Williams denies it under oath.

While this may not be the proverbial "smoking gun," it's at least a handful of still-warm brass cartridge shells. The GOP hearings of 1947-48 embarrassed Democratic President Harry S. Truman on some judgment questions, but they weren't essentially targeted on the president's personal finances and behavior. The Whitewater hearings are, and if investigators find fire where there's already smoke billowing, the one-two punch of the congressional efforts and the independent actions of Special Counsel Kenneth W. Starr could create something akin to the 1973-74 Watergate mess.

Though this isn't likely, it would be the ultimate in political parallels. Then we could look for three results: Mr. Clinton's ratings would drop from the low-to-mid 40s into the precarious 30s; a primary challenge from a major Democratic figure, such as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri or Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and the possibility that Mr. Clinton would retire in favor of Vice President Al Gore as the nominee, or even the slim chance of Mr. Clinton having to leave office in favor of Gore.

Any of these outcomes, especially retirement, would change the campaign scenarios for 1996. In previous situations where vice presidents succeeded to the Oval Office a year before the next national election -- Calvin Coolidge in 1923 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963 -- the rally-round-the-new-president effect lasted long enough to make them easy winners come November.

Even without that kind of turmoil, though, 1996 presidential politics is beginning to take over the Capitol Hill legislative process. Never before has a Republican Senate majority leader been the nomination front-runner, while a rival GOP House speaker keeps open his own option of running for president.

That candidacy, obviously, would ensure civil war among the congressional GOP. Yet, lesser fratricide is already visible. Senate Leader Bob Dole of Kansas now has three of his supposed Senate flock running against him -- Phil Gramm of Texas, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Their sniping is increasing because Mr. Dole is bucking wicked historical odds. No party Senate leader has ever been able to ride that office to a presidential nomination. New polls suggest Mr. Dole's "favorability ratings" are already sagging, from 51 percent in March to 43 percent in June and just 40 percent now. Fraternal daggers and a relentless spotlight may be taking their toll.

Should Mr. Dole come undone in the early 1996 primaries, it's hard to see the GOP with another potential winner. He is essentially tied with Mr. Clinton in current trial heats. By contrast, none of the three second-tier GOP contenders -- Senator Gramm, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and California Gov. Pete Wilson -- come close.

Which brings us to the last point: Increasingly, fewer voters think the Republicans and Democrats are believable -- even on issues, or investigations, where they support them.

Messrs. Clinton and Gingrich are probably the principal sowers of this skepticism, but Messrs. Dole, Wilson and most other national figures have also played a role. In consequence, we now find record levels of Americans favoring a new party -- up to 60 percent in some polls. At least five major figures are now contemplating independent presidential bids: Colin L. Powell, Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, former Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and Mr. Buchanan (if a moderate should win the GOP nomination).

In the end, it is all seamless and linked: the opportunism, the neo-gridlock, the endless politicking to occupy a great office increasingly distinguished by the undistinguished nature of its occupants. Waco and Whitewater are not just investigations -- ,, unfortunately, they are also symbols.

Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics" (Little Brown).

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