Investigations seen as election tool

Parties sharpen attacks over Sept. 11, Medicare

Election 2004

April 05, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As President Bush and Sen. John Kerry sharpen attacks against each other on everything from tax cuts to gas prices, their weapons of choice are speeches and television ads. But Republicans and Democrats are eyeing what both sides say could be a potent tool in the election: the power to investigate.

During the next several weeks, Bush will appear privately before the independent commission on Sept. 11 to face questions about how his administration handled the threat of terrorism before the 2001 attacks. Bowing to political pressure, he agreed to allow his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to testify publicly.

In addition, a Senate panel investigating how Bush used intelligence data before the Iraq war will issue its initial report. A House committee will begin drafting its own.

The House committee that oversees Medicare has held hearings on allegations by the program's chief actuary that senior officials pressed him not to disclose to Congress his projection that Bush's prescription drug benefit for seniors would cost far more than the administration had said publicly.

For Democrats, the investigations are a handy way to focus time and attention on what they call Bush's failures as a leader.

"It's an embarrassment of riches for the Democrats," said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "The problem for Bush is that his re-election campaign is predicated on the notion that he's the one to decide, that he makes good decisions. ... All of these investigations undermine that message."

Kerry's campaign has pointed to the Medicare inquiries as evidence of a Bush "credibility gap." But Republicans, too, are looking to investigations to try to discredit opponents.

Senate Republicans have asked the intelligence committee to broaden its investigation of pre-Iraq war intelligence to examine statements made by Democrats, including Kerry.

In a letter to the committee, the Republicans noted that many Democrats had said before the war that they believed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, only to accuse the Bush administration later of having hyped that allegation to justify an invasion.

"We hope your review can dispel any suggestion that Democrat senators have reversed their previous conclusions for partisan political gain," said the letter, sent by Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

The two concluded by suggesting that the intelligence investigation is being tainted by politics.

"That this is happening in an election year," Kyl and Santorum wrote, "has not made your job easier."

At the behest of Republicans, the House intelligence panel is examining the credibility of Richard A. Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief. Clarke told the Sept. 11 panel that the Bush administration largely ignored warnings about al-Qaida before Sept. 11.

"It is one thing for Mr. Clarke to dissemble in front of the media, in front of the press, but if he lied under oath to the Congress, it is a far more serious matter," said Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader.

Unflattering spotlight

Lawmakers in both parties view these investigations as a way to shine an unflattering public spotlight on the opposing party's candidate.

"With President Bush running for re-election on a four-year record, congressional and other investigations provide the main stage on which the election-issue drama gets acted out," said Charles Tiefer, a professor of legislation at the University of Baltimore law school and former counsel for several congressional investigations, including the Iran-contra case.

"Hearings provide a highly charged place for the challenger to attack and the incumbent to defend, which the public can follow much better than speeches either one makes in the abstract," Tiefer said.

Kerry has been cautious about seizing on investigations to fuel his attacks. He waited nearly a week after news broke about Clarke's scathing critiques of the Bush administration to speak out on the issue on the campaign trail.

But congressional Democrats have not been loath to demand investigations and to use every opportunity to talk about them.

"This is becoming a pattern in this White House. What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, said last week, borrowing words made famous during the Watergate investigation.

Many Republicans say Democrats are exploiting the inquiries for partisan gain.

Rep. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, asserted that Democrats are harping on investigations because "they have no agenda."

"All they have is to try to undermine the president's credibility and try to tear down the House to take it over," DeLay said. "Calls for an investigation are just what they are: It's just political nonsense."

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