The parties should swap scandal for scandal



WASHINGTON -- In a way, it's too bad that the Republican and Democratic parties don't settle things the way it's done in the international spy business. That is, when each side catches the other spying, they simply swap the spies they've caught and forget about it.

This thought comes to mind in the current dust-up over House Speaker Newt Gingrich's $4.5 million book deal, changed in the face of Democratic sniping to a straight royalties arrangement, which could yield him just as much in the end.

The Democrats, led by House Minority Whip David Bonior, are continuing to flail Gingrich in the wake of disclosures that he met with publisher Rupert Murdoch and his lobbyist at a time when Murdoch's lucrative television interests are being challenged before the Federal Communications Commission.

Although Gingrich insists he never really discussed the matter with Murdoch, even some of his most prominent supporters, such as conservative Republican theorist William Kristol, are suggesting he "probably should give up the book" because "it's become a distraction, and we need to stay focused."

What Kristol refers to is Gingrich's "Contract With America" and the House Republicans' pledge to bring all of its promises to a vote in the first 100 days of this new Republican-controlled Congress. The argument is being made to Gingrich that he shouldn't give the Democrats ammunition with which to divert attention from reaching that goal.

The Democrats' seizing on the Gingrich book deal is being compared with the tactic Gingrich himself used in 1989 to drive a Democratic predecessor, Speaker Jim Wright, from that office over a much-less-lucrative book deal. But more recently, the Democratic sniping resembles the attacks by Republicans against President Clinton in the Paula Jones accusations and the Whitewater affair.

These matters have been pursued by the Republicans in an obvious political effort to undercut Clinton's legislative agenda and personal reputation with the voters, and have taken their toll on Clinton's ability to keep the public's focus on that agenda.

All of which takes us back to the way they settle matters in the spy business. If John LeCarre were writing the script of what is going on in Washington today, an arrangement might simply be struck between the Democrats and the Republicans to make a swap: You give up your diversionary assault on our leader and we'll give up ours on yours.

Such a swap would enable Gingrich without distraction to get on with his "revolution" of changing how Congress does business and his burial of the "liberal welfare state." At the same time, it would enable Clinton without distraction to pursue his "bill of rights for the middle class," and voters could concentrate on the substantive differences between the two sides.

But political Washington doesn't do business the way it's done in a LeCarre spy novel. When one side "gets something" on the other, it uses it for all it's worth to inflict political damage, and for as long as it can keep the issue alive.

This is not to say that the matters of the Gingrich book deal, the Paula Jones accusations and the Whitewater case should simply be swept under the rug. The proper forum for all of these is an investigation by a special counsel outside Congress, or in the courts. The Jones case is already in the courts and a special counsel is exploring Whitewater, and as a result the political noise level on both has been lowered.

That leaves the Gingrich book deal. It will be argued by the Republicans that it is very small potatoes compared with the Jones and Whitewater matters and doesn't warrant the same treatment. But if that is so, it shouldn't take a special counsel very long to dispose of it, and meanwhile the Democrats will find it harder to keep hassling Gingrich over it.

It is, obviously, fanciful to think that the Democrats and Republicans might strike a deal to lay off the juicy political targets presented to each other by the personal affairs of Gingrich and the Clintons. But it would be refreshing to see them do so for once, and focus on all the more important business before them.

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