The Democrats trot out the old 'everybody-does-it' excuse

November 06, 1996|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- A major handicap the Republicans had in trying to exploit Democratic fund-raising excesses in the campaign that mercifully ended yesterday was that they did not come to the argument with clean hands themselves.

Campaign fund-raising has been a scandalous enterprise shamelessly pursued by both parties for years.

Generous friends

While the Republicans were not caught putting the arm on foreigners as the overzealous Democrats were, they had their own high-powered money-grabbing operation humming, pulling in $400 million this year compared to $250 million raised by the Democrats, according to the Federal Election Commission.

This fact made it possible for the Democrats to drag out the old everybody-does-it defense, which they condemned when the Republicans used it nearly a quarter-century ago in the Watergate affair.

That scandal, like this latest one, also broke in the midst of a presidential campaign and was stonewalled effectively until after the election.

In fact, in the Watergate case, everybody hadn't done it -- hadn't subverted the Constitution in the many ways President Richard Nixon and his political cronies muscled the privacy and other rights of Americans and bribed the Watergate burglars to dummy up.

But that argument was good enough to deprive the allegations of their political sting until well after the 1972 election, in which Nixon snowed under hapless the Democratic nominee George McGovern.

Damaged goods

McGovern like Bob Dole this year strove valiantly to get voters before Election Day to pay attention to what was going on, without success. Like Mr. Dole this year, he simply was too much damaged goods as a candidate to be able to convert his opponent's excesses into a strong vote for himself.

In the Watergate affair, the chickens finally did come home to roost, in a congressional investigation and a singing Watergate principal, but too late to change the election's outcome.

In this latest case, some sort of congressional investigation is also likely, but again too late to change the outcome at the ballot box.

What is striking is that in both cases, the perpetrators of the excesses committed their deeds unnecessarily, in light of the clear victories achieved.

In Watergate, the Nixonites sought not only to defeat McGovern but to demolish him in pursuit of that much-ballyhooed ''mandate'' from the voters to work their will on the country over the next four years.

Uncontrolled quest

There was some of that, too, in this fall's uncontrolled quest for a larger ''mandate'' for President Clinton than supposedly was achieved by his mere 43 percent plurality in 1992.

He is disregarding, as Nixon did 24 years ago, the old John F. Kennedy observation after he shaded Nixon by a mere .017 percent of the popular vote, that a mandate is getting one more vote than the other guy.

Nixon in the end was punished severely for the excesses of his quest for an overwhelming victory in 1972.

Mother's milk of politics

Some Republicans are already predicting, probably with more hope than clairvoyance, that Mr. Clinton too will get his comeuppance for encouraging or at least tolerating reckless gluttony in the pursuit of what Jesse Unruh famously once called the mother's milk of politics.

Perhaps the most practical impact of the 11th-hour furor over campaign contributions will be to pressure President Clinton finally to work for real campaign finance reform.

Last week, while insisting that he and the Democratic National Committee had ''played by the rules'' of fund-raising, he joined Senator Dole in proposing that only American citizens be allowed to contribute to American campaigns, along with other reforms.

But candidates once elected tend to slack off. Mr. Clinton after all pledged reform before his 1992 victory, and again in his celebrated handshake agreement on campaign reform with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

It hasn't happened yet. The everybody-does-it defense is always an available alibi for avoiding corrective action.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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