Scandal Time

History suggests the White House scandals won't help Republicans as much as they expect.


Many Republicans are hoping to profit from White House scandals. But even if the voters come to see the Clinton crew as a bunch of razorback hogs in the muck, will the damage reach Democratic congressional candidates? There is reason for doubt. Although scandals can smudge reputations and wreck careers, history supplies no obvious cases where they have caused long-lasting partisan change.

Take the example of U.S. Grant, a clean man with a dirty administration. Graft and incompetence flowed so freely during his tenure that Grantism quickly became a synonym for political debasement. Despite the slime that surrounded him, Grant easily won a second term in 1872, and his party held the presidency in the next election. OK, so the GOP's 1876 victory was a tad fraudulent. Still, the voters forgave and forgot: In 1880, they handed the Republicans yet another term in the White House and restored a GOP majority in the House of Representatives.

During the 1920s, the emerging Teapot Dome scandal lost political steam when Warren Harding conveniently died (from poisoning by his jealous wife, according to rumor) and was succeeded by the righteous Calvin Coolidge, who led the Republicans to triumph in 1924. Three decades later, stories about widespread corruption did contribute to Truman's retirement and the GOP sweep of the 1952 national elections. In 1954, however, Democrats regained the House and Senate, starting what would become the longest stretch of one-party control in congressional history.

In all these instances, the parties in power walked away with only scratches. Once the tainted individuals left the scene, the scandals lost their sting.

Watergate seems to be an exception. The Republicans suffered deep losses in the 1974 congressional elections and did not really recover until 1980—and even then, they failed to win control of the House. Ever since the 1970s, therefore, opposition researchers of both parties have lusted for "another Watergate," a series of revelations that would break the other side's legs and keep them broken for years.

The weakness of the Watergate paradigm is that the scandal was only one source of the GOP's problems in the '70s, and not necessarily the most important one. In 1972, the Committee to Re-Elect the President vacuumed up campaign resources that could have gone to GOP congressional candidates and then refused to give the slightest help to the party at large. The Nixon administration's policies—a guaranteed income, wage-price controls, racial quotas—temporarily blunted liberal criticism at the cost of obliterating partisan differences. In 1974, Nixonomics combined with an oil shortage (made worse by government controls) to produce a deep recession that probably cost the GOP far more seats than Watergate did.

Over the long run, in fact, Watergate may have hurt the Democrats more than the Republicans. Many in the party's dominant liberal wing thought they could forever scare voters away from the GOP by chanting, "Nixon, Watergate, dirty tricks." They passed up the chance to update their message by rethinking the New Deal welfare state, and they paid the price during the presidential elections of the 1980s.

Today's Republicans would be similarly ill-advised to sink all their capital into the Clintons' alleged misdeeds. (That would be as irrational as risking one's life savings in cattle futures without a miraculously well-connected broker.) For such scandals to yield long-term benefit for the GOP, two things would have to happen. First, the voters would have to conclude that wrongdoing involved Democrats outside the Clintons' immediate circle. But politicians, like cockroaches, have wondrous survival instincts. If things start to go badly, Clinton's partisans will distance themselves from him just as fast as House Democrats ditched Speaker Jim Wright when he became a liability.

Second, voters would have to be convinced that Republicans are much more ethical than Democrats. That is a tough sell. While Republicans can justly argue that Democrats hyped GOP misdeeds during the "decade of greed," they can hardly claim exemption from original sin. Among other things, Americans are painfully aware of Republican involvement in the House Bank and the S&L fiasco.

These scandals helped set off the current wave of political outsiderism. Some Republicans have assumed this sentiment would automatically help their side: Democrats hold more seats in Congress, so "anti-incumbent" usually means "pro-Republican," right? Wrong. As John Hood has argued in these pages ("The Third Way," February 1993), popular discontent with the political system has translated into growing support for minor parties.

This phenomenon extends beyond Ross Perot's presidential bid. Ryan Iwasaka, an undergraduate researcher at Claremont McKenna College, has calculated that minor-party candidates for the U.S. House received 1.8 million votes in 1992, or 2 percent of the total vote. The latter figure understates their significance, since they did not appear on the ballot in most districts. Among the races where they did participate, they won more than 9 percent of the vote.

If Republicans talk of nothing but Democratic character flaws, voters will spurn both sides and turn in even greater numbers to minor parties. To attract voters to the GOP banner instead of driving them away from the two-party system, Republicans need a compelling message about the substance of public policy.

Idealy the issue of corruption could offer the starting point for such a message. After all, why does official corruption happen in the first place? Whenever government hands out material benefits and regulates economic activities, interested individuals and firms will seek to gorge themselves on the goodies and gain special dispensations from the rules. To curry government's favor, they will ply politicians with "gifts" and campaign contributions.

The 1972 Nixon campaign could afford luxuries such as burglary because it could raise millions from businesses afraid of government regulation. According to one of Woodward and Bernstein's sourc-es, finance chairman Maurice Stans would make the following pitch to CEOs: "You know we got this crazy man [EPA Administrator William] Ruckelshaus back East who'd just as soon close your factory as let the smokestack belch. He's a hard man to control and he's not the only one like that in Washington. People need a place to go, to cut through the red tape when you've got a guy like that on the loose."

Since Watergate, Congress has responded to official corruption with complex regulations on ethics and campaign finance, which have mainly served to make influence peddling more subtle and professional. Using such rules to fight political rot is like treating obesity with a girdle: It rearranges the problem instead of solving it.

The best way to raise government's moral standard is to reduce its size and scope. Conversely, the worst possible course is to create costly new bureaucracies—and this is where ethics intersects with health-care reform. If you want to give physicians and other providers even more incentive to play the influence game, endow the federal government with total control over their livelihoods. If you want to create a black market in medical services, where desperate patients slip cash under the table to their doctors, then enact legislation empowering health alliances to limit fees and forbidding patients to pay doctors directly. By drawing more and more people into the swamp of regulatory politics, and by criminalizing market transactions, the Clinton health plan would set the stage for corruption far greater than anything ever imagined in Little Rock.

So in framing the campaign debate, the issue for Republicans is not policy or ethics, but policy as ethics. Focusing on the sins of individual politicians will do them little good in the long run, because the politicians will eventually go away. Instead, they need to make the case that big, bureaucratic government is bad government, meaning not just inefficient but ethically corrosive.

John J. Pitney Jr. is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.