Posted on April 07, 1997 in Washington Watch

Once again, the White House was shaken, last week, by new revelations regarding 1996 campaign fundraising. There have been a steady flow of stories appearing in the press over the past six months and there appears to be no end in sight to this unfolding drama.

There are some substantial issues that are at stake here. For example, there are allegations that the government of China sought to improperly funnel funds into U.S. politics in order to influence policy. There have also been several major donations to the President’s Democratic Party that have been determined to be illegal or improper. This has been acknowledged by the party and they have resolved to return the money. At the same time, there have been daily stories about fundraising practices carried out by the Democratic Party and the President’s elections campaign that many consider to be at best unsavory, or worse possibly illegal.

When these and other similar stories are combined, the Clinton Administration has been on the receiving end of a tidal wave of negative press that has all but drowned out most other national stories. Given the penchant of the national press to feed off hints of scandal, each story grows from one day to the next becoming a prolonged drawn out saga.

In just the past two months the press have been filled with such tales as these:

· the perks that the White House is alleged to have given to either reward large donors or entice new ones. These have included invitations to meet with the President, have coffee at the White House, or spend a night in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom.

Boxes of campaign memos of a former White House official have fed those stories and provided the press with volumes of information.

While there is nothing illegal here, the press has been making a great deal about what they term a “lack of propriety” on the part of the White House.

· Connected to this is the role played by Vice President Gore in making phone calls from the White House to solicit campaign contributions for the 1996 effort.

Again, while most analysts view this story as unseemly but not illegal—it has put the Vice President on the defensive and is haunting him in his dealings with the press.

· In a number of instances the White House’s own National Security Council or the FBI warned of potential trouble from foreign donors or donors linked with foreign interests. Since this advice was not followed and several businessmen with questionable backgrounds were allowed to meet with the President or to attend functions with the President and Vice President and to contribute to the 1996 election campaign, questions have arisen as to why these practices were allowed and why the advice of the NSC and FBI was not followed.

· There has been a long drawn-out story following the activities of at least three controversial Asian American fundraisers, one of whom was an official at the Democratic Party. After close examination, the party found that $1.5 million of the $3.5 million raised by those individuals were illegal or improper and has therefore decided to return those contributions. New stories have surfaced possibly linking some of those contributions to the Chinese government.

· And more recently, there have been stories regarding efforts made by White House officials to secure work for a former Administration official who had been forced to resign from his position under indictment for wrong doings.

While White House officials insisted that they were merely helping a friend in need, some are alleging that the White House might have been trying to buy the silence of the former official.

There is in all of this no “smoking gun”, that is direct evidence implicating the President or other high officials in any criminal acts. But the effect of these accumulated stories has been like water torture. Running daily in the national and local press, drop after drop, day after day.

With the Republican Senate and House soon to begin public hearings on these matters, the stories are assured to be running for a least one more year.

The outcome of this prolonged assault is still uncertain, but what is clear is that the continuing collection of stories is having some effect, although not necessarily on the President.

It is fascinating to note that the polls are showing that the President’s popularity remains quite high—at least as high as it has ever been, with 63% positive rating and a 33% negative rating. While many Americans feel that there were wrong doings and even illegal acts in the 1996 elections, they do not bring this issues to the doorstep of the President.

This is not the case for Vice President Gore. Although Mr. Gore is not being directly faulted by most analysts with any illegality, his admission to having made fundraising calls from the White House, has somewhat tarnished his image, at least in the eyes of the press who report on his activities.

In part because of the way he has been covered in the press and because of what many felt to be poor and defensive explanations of his activities, Mr. Gore has slipped somewhat in the polls. This has produced some additional repercussions. With Gore no longer being seen as “Mr. Clean” by some reporters, some of his potential Democratic rivals for the Presidency in 2000 have become emboldened to directly challenge him. In addition the press coverage of Gore’s recent trip to China did not so much reflect his mission as it did the press’ view of his new vulnerability. The issue of the 1996 campaign haunted the visit to China and even marred it.

This is not to say that the Vice President is permanently wounded. He is a resilient politician with considerable political assets. But his path to the Presidency in 2000 will be more difficult than it was before the press began its attack. Most Americans still feel that Mr. Gore is an honorable man, it is the press that he will have to convince.

A further impact of the unfolding story has been increased public disenchantment with politics and a lowering of public expectations about what government can and will do in the coming year.

Instead of seeking bipartisanship and cooperation in solving key problems, the press is portraying a Congress that appears to be engaged in scandal hunting and partisan attacks.

It also now seems clear that despite all of the revelations of abuses of both Democrats and Republicans in 1996, there will most likely not be meaningful campaign finance reform in 1997 or 1998. There is some public outcry, but a great deal of public cynicism as well.

The President has been mobilizing prominent national figures in support of a campaign reform bill proposed by a Republican Senator and Democratic Senator. But analysts don’t give the bill much hope because it cannot develop support in the Senate. At the same time, the President’s efforts to support the bill are being portrayed in the press as an effort to deflect public criticism from the 1996 abuses.

To make public opinion even worse, the Republican Chair of the House committee that will examine the Democrat’s campaign practices was accused recently of attempting to politically blackmail a Democratic lobbyist for campaign contributions. And the Republican leader of the Senate has been raising campaign money through the mail by exploiting the Democrats problems.

Republicans and Democrats combined raised and spent well in excess of $1 billion in the 1996 campaign cycle (Republicans bested Democrats 65% to 35%). Neither part wants to unilaterally disarm before the 1998 elections and so the fundraising game will in all probability not change before then.

With Democrats $14.5 million in debt, they need to raise money to prepare for 1998. Republicans, on the other hand, sense that they have an advantage and don’t appear to be ready to make concessions.

And so, the story will go on and new stories will be added, spreading to include Republican abuses (as they are now being exposed). Where it will all lead is not yet clear, but apparently it will not yet lead to change.

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