Jewish World Review Feb. 20, 2001 / 27 Shevat 5761
When will Dems finally say Clinton is unfit leader?
DEMOCRATS seem confused about what to do with Bill Clinton. On the one hand, many of them are disgusted by his latest displays of sleaziness. On the other hand, they seem reluctant to ask him to get lost as their party leader.
This is a moment a lot like the first days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when leading Democrats muttered about asking Clinton to resign. When his polls numbers held, though, they formed a phalanx with him against Republicans.
Right now any number of Democrats are criticizing Clinton's pardon of tax-fraud fugitive Marc Rich, trying to ignore the other examples of potential corruption tumbling in, and warming up to blame Republicans for "piling on."
As one top Democratic aide put it to me, "Republicans just can't give him up as a bogey man. I think they run the risk of hurting themselves. You can't have President Bush preaching civility and bipartisanship and at the same time have (Rep.) Dan Burton, R-Ind., conducting show trials. The public will see this as piling on."
I don't think so. This is one occasion when Burton, deservedly criticized in the past for wretched excess, just may have hit investigative pay dirt.
The Rich pardon is utterly indefensible. The man fled prosecution in the largest tax-fraud case in U.S. history, traded with American adversaries -- including Iran and Iraq, despite sanctions -- and showed no remorse whatsoever.
If Clinton has a legitimate explanation for the pardon, which is highly unlikely, he hasn't given it yet. So the rest of the world is free to assume it had something to do with the millions of dollars Rich's ex-wife, Denise, gave to the Democratic Party and the $400,000 she contributed to the Clinton library fund.
According to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll last weekend, only 9 percent of voters think the reason Clinton pardoned Rich was that "the facts supported" it, whereas 68 percent believe it was because of contributions from Rich's friends and family.
Other pardons are also suspect, including those of convicted cocaine dealer Carlos Vignali, leaders of a Hasidic community in New York who aggressively threw their support to now-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., last fall and convicted stock trader Edward Downe Jr.
With any luck, Burton and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., will get to the bottom of the pardons and will open the hidden Clinton library fund to inspection to see what other beneficiaries of presidential favors may have contributed.
It is probably a far-fetched notion that Clinton could be impeached again. But investigations of the pardons are entirely legitimate.
In the meantime, Clinton is being impeached in the court of public opinion for the fact that he and his wife walked off with $190,000 in gifts just prior to her taking office as a senator.
In spite of her $8 million book advance, their ability to purchase $2 million houses and his six-figure speaking fees, they took at least $28,000 worth of furniture meant as gifts for the White House, not for them personally.
All this is on top of Clinton's late-January plea bargain with special counsel Robert Ray, in which Clinton admitted -- and then had his lawyer deny that he admitted -- lying under oath in the Paula Jones case long ago.
So Clinton has left office much as he occupied it, mocking his 1993 vow to have "the most ethical administration in American history."
This is the man the Democrats have as their leader unless someone has the temerity to tell him not to be. Clinton has installed the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And every day he makes himself the most visible of all Democrats -- a spectacle, in fact.
Some Democrats say "the party has many leaders." But when the Gallup Poll took a survey among random voters of any party of whom they considered to be the top Democrat, Clinton got 20 percent, over former Vice President Al Gore's 16 percent. Among Democrats, Clinton led the former vice president by a spread of 26 percent to 21 percent.
This evidence suggests that Gore could challenge Clinton as the party's chief spokesperson, but he is not doing so. Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., who have large roles, finished in single digits. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., finished just behind Clinton and Gore and ahead of Daschle and Gephardt.
Clinton's misbehavior is a huge gift to Bush, who comes off as St. George by comparison to Bad Boy Bill -- although, in spite of the Rich scandal, Clinton's favorability rating is holding at 53 percent and Bush's is only 60 percent, according to Gallup.
The White House is staying clear of the Clinton scandals, letting Republicans in Congress handle various probes. White House aides do think that one likely upshot is that Sen. Clinton is less likely to run for president in 2004 than she might have been previously.
Obviously, what's important is not what Republicans think of the Democratic Party but what the public thinks. Policy stances will be the most important determinant in the end. But having a scoundrel at the helm can't
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.
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