GOP's partisan stance on Whitewater is risky



WASHINGTON -- It is no secret to anyone with even minimal street smarts that the White House has been politically inept in its handling of the Whitewater controversy. But there is also a legitimate question about whether the Republicans may be overplaying their hand.

On the face of it, the Republican demands for congressional inquiries have an obvious legitimacy. There is no reason the appointment of special counsel Robert Fiske should dilute the responsibilities of Congress for oversight.

That responsibility applies particularly to any questions raised about President Clinton's conduct while he has been in office or the conduct of those who work for him.

If there was something fishy or flawed about the handling of the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster Jr., the facts need to be spelled out.

Similarly, there is legitimate fodder for congressional inquiry into the question of those meetings between White House staff members and federal regulators involved in the case. The issue here is simply whether there was any attempt by the White House to influence the conduct of the regulators' work.

But Republicans may be taking a risk in adopting a hard partisan stance on the whole controversy. The electorate these days is suspicious of too much partisanship, which voters equate with gridlock and the failure of government to deal seriously with domestic problems. That was one of the lessons that could be drawn from the 1992 election results.

Nor is Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York the ideal Republican to be taking the lead in the case. He was criticized himself by the Senate Ethics Committee for allowing his brother to use his Senate office for the conduct of his personal business. In fact, the image of D'Amato is abrasive enough so that Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole seemed to make a point of bringing into the equation another Republican with a long-established reputation for being less partisan and conspicuously independent, Sen. William Cohen of Maine.

In the House, the Republican who has been most persistent in pressing for hearings has been Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, who has a reputation much like Cohen's for being independent and thoughtful. But the voices heard most often and the faces being seen most vividly are those of people like D'Amato, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich.

Other Republicans wonder, however, how they are being seen and heard by voters who, as one GOP leader said privately the other day, "don't really understand what happened down there in Little Rock." And even if they understand, is epidemic &L cronyism worth all the noise they are making?

Some Republicans also argue that putting the issue into a partisan cast is unnecessary as well as possibly counterproductive. They point out that the press has been the one pursuing the case and raising the questions and can be expected to continue doing so.

Up to this point, the Republicans have been blessed by that clumsiness in the White House -- in the Foster suicide case, in holding those meetings, in the flawed strategy of trying to depict the whole thing as some fiendish plot by the president's political enemies to undermine his domestic agenda.

Perhaps the single dumbest ploy has been the attempt to question the ethics of Bob Dole on the flimsiest of grounds -- a totally unsubstantiated allegation made in a lawsuit. It is not the kind of thing Dole takes as politics as usual. Nor is it the kind of thing he is likely to forget later.

But both the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton have adopted a more prudent course in the past few days -- repeating their offers of full cooperation with Fiske and turning their attention back to the national policy agenda, health care reform in particular.

In the long run, the political fallout from Whitewater will depend on the facts that are put before the voters either by the Fiske investigation or Congress. Meanwhile, those braying Republicans may be building an image for themselves that doesn't fit the description of what is politically correct these days.

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