Clinton's conduct belies calls for bipartisanship

February 13, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton used a Maryland jail last week as a backdrop to his new drug policy, he said, as he often does, "I don't want this to become a partisan issue."

Then he implored the politicians in his audience to work on the issue of drug addiction together -- "Republicans and Democrats."

The problem was that among the 30 federal office holders and officials invited by the White House to come over from Washington, none was a Republican.

Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, a New York Republican with an extensive background in drug policy, was listed on the White House fact sheet as one of the dignitaries -- but he wasn't there.

"He wasn't even invited," said Mr. Gilman's press secretary, Andrew Zarutskie. "I think that's typical of this White House."

While bipartisanship is emphasized by Mr. Clinton in almost every public address he makes, his White House appears to be relentlessly partisan -- in ways that sometimes seem petty.

Mr. Clinton is hardly the first president to use the power of the White House to attempt to influence political events. After all, the past three administrations have all had a candidly named "office of political affairs" in the White House.

Nor is latent partisanship the only reason a president has for promoting candidates and officials in his own party: The more votes he can count on in Congress, the easier it is to enact his programs.

But Mr. Clinton has presented himself as an "agent of change," and has spoken disparagingly of "politics-as-usual," which he often defines as a unseemly partisanship.

Thus, even prominent Democrats such as former party Chairman John White, concede that it is fair to consider whether Mr. Clinton's words on this matter match his deeds.

California maneuvering

When Mr. Clinton visited Southern California in the wake of the recent earthquake, for example, White House operatives insisted, in violation of political protocol, that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson not preside at an organizational meeting of state and federal officials.

Weeks later, at a meeting of the National Governors' Association in Washington, Mr. Wilson received an invitation to a staff-level meeting at the White House on earthquake relief. His staff was also informed that the White House had invited two other California officials, Kathleen Rice Brown and John Garamendi.

Those two just happen to be the Democratic candidates against Mr. Wilson in this year's gubernatorial race.

If this were the only example, it would be easy to overlook. After all, should Mr. Wilson be re-elected, he is a logical contender for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination.

But all kinds of Republicans complain that they have been given the high hat by the Clinton White House. They seem to come in for this treatment whether they have presidential ambitions or not, and whether they are conservative or liberal.

Last summer, the president went to the New York congressional district of Hamilton Fish Jr., one of the most respected members of Congress. A 25-year veteran of the House, he tends to be conservative on fiscal issues but liberal on social issues, particularly civil rights.

As a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Fish bucked his own party in 1974 to vote for the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon. He played a key role in rounding up Republican support forthe Fair Housing Act of 1988 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and he supported the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which many congressional Republicans said encouraged racial quotas.

So how did the White House treat Mr. Fish? They notified him of the visit just hours before -- not in time for him to make the trip -- although somehow, freshman Democratic Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, whose district Mr. Clinton also visited, was notified in time.

"I was more upset by it than Ham was," recalled Mr. Fish's top aide, Nicholas Hayes. "Maybe it wasn't a slight; maybe they just didn't have their act together."

This defense -- of general incompetence -- was also leveled by one prominent Washington Democrat, who said, "They don't return phone calls from Republicans or Democrats. The Bush people returned my phone calls a lot faster -- and these people are my friends. I don't know why, but the Bush people just didn't seem to be quite as bitter."

One senior administration official didn't deny that this White House is coming across as excessively partisan. "You have to understand that in our minds, the Republicans were running the country wrong," he said. "And they were good at politics. They not only beat us, but tortured us. And people have long memories in politics."

Political partisanship certainly wasn't invented by the Clinton administration, but it may have been less overt during the Reagan and Bush years. Both Republican presidents knew they had to work with a Democratic Congress.

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