Republican overreaction to the Reno decision


WASHINGTON -- In purely political terms, the prudent course for Attorney General Janet Reno would be to name a special prosecutor to look into Democratic fund-raising for the 1996 campaign. Such a decision would insulate her from the charges she is trying to cover up a scandal embarrassing to President Clinton.

But the Republican reaction to her refusal to do so has been so extreme that the political equities may be quite different from what they appeared to be.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich accused Ms. Reno of

behaving like a latter-day John N. Mitchell, the late attorney general who helped in the Watergate cover-up for President Richard M. Nixon in 1973. Considering that Mitchell was convicted of a felony for his conduct, that charge is outrageous -- especially when you consider that the charge is leveled by, as Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle put it so acidly, ''the guru of ethics'' of Capitol Hill.

There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Ms. Reno is or has been involved in any effort to make things easier for the White House. On the contrary, until this case arose, her willingness to appoint independent counsels has been a source of some obvious discomfort in the White House.

She has established a reputation for independence and integrity. It is reasonable to assume she has made her decisions based on her own view of the independent-counsel law, whatever the political fallout. There never has been any hint that she is nourishing some private political agenda.

In the fund-raising case, Ms. Reno's decision is based on her contention that the evidence of possible criminal behavior by a high official -- meaning the president or vice president -- is not sufficient to trigger the independent-counsel law.

That doesn't mean that President Clinton and Vice President Gore may not have been guilty of gross excesses in fund-raising for that campaign, but only that even those excesses may not have violated the law.

Nor does her decision mean necessarily that someone in the White House or Democratic National Committee may not have committed crimes in producing all that ''soft money'' for the campaign -- but only that these functionaries may not qualify as high enough in government rank for the independent-counsel law to be applied.

Basis of decision

Her decision, Ms. Reno indicated, has been based on the inquiry under way for several weeks by the Justice Department's own investigators.

The most serious criticism came from Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee had requested a special prosecutor. He offered a point-by-point critique of Ms. Reno's ''vague and ambiguous and, at times, legally disingenuous'' rationale.

Senator Hatch is the Republican heavyweight on this question, but it is Mr. Gingrich who has set the tone for the Republican assault with his threat to investigate Ms. Reno herself. ''The facts are overwhelming,'' he said. ''The fact is that we have evidence of illegality in foreign contributions.''

The speaker has some evidence, most obviously the fact that the DNC has been obliged to return so many contributions because they were so clearly illegal and the fact that the Clinton-Gore campaign took full control of the ''soft money'' that legally was supposed to be used for general party-building rather than specific candidates.

He fails to understand, however, the danger that total partisanship reinforces the widespread belief, repeatedly cited by polls, that the whole controversy is just another partisan brouhaha not worth serious attention.

The debate over the special prosecutor is far from over. And there may come a time when Justice Department investigators find some evidence that would qualify as the kind of crime worth the attention of an independent counsel.

Meanwhile, the Republicans would be wise to avoid being too partisan. The Democrats are already, as George Bush might have put it, in deep doo-doo.

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

Pub Date: 4/18/97

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