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In the Competition for This Award, It’s an Insult Just to Be Nominated

Let us now praise foolish men.

In the normal course of things, it is triumph that poets praise. But in Washington this year, it would be difficult to collect enough triumphs to complete a couplet. Usually failure slinks silently away. But with a few notable exceptions (the budget deal, the agreement with Russia to expand NATO), failure in the capital has been more vivid than success. It’s time to give failure its due.

In that spirit, we present here the first Jacques Chirac award, for the year’s most disastrous miscalculation in American politics. Chirac, of course, is the conservative French president who set the global standard for political miscalculation this spring when he called parliamentary elections 10 months early and watched discontented voters sweep into power a Socialist prime minister unalterably opposed to almost everything Chirac wants to do. What a shock: Given a chance to be ornery, the French seized it. Hasn’t Chirac ever asked for directions on a Paris street?

No one in the American political arena has done anything quite so stupid this year. But it’s only June. That’s why the following is just a preliminary list of nominees for the Chirac; the competition will remain open until December. Still, it’s a brisk early pace.

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In the legal category, Robert Bennett, President Clinton’s lawyer in the Paula Jones case, has taken a clear lead for his suggestion that he would expose Jones’ “reputation"--and by implication her sex life--if she pursued her day in court. Bennett was so busy proving himself a bulldog that he didn’t notice whose garden he was fertilizing. Fifty-seven percent of Clinton’s 1996 votes came from women. As Bennett quickly discovered before he backed off, any politician so dependent on women’s support can’t go into court with a defense that amounts to “she asked for it.”

Vice President Al Gore makes the list for the year’s most damaging press conference. After Bob Woodward subjected his campaign fund-raising to a full body search in the Washington Post last March, Gore rushed to the microphone and nearly hanged himself with the cord. So robotic was Gore’s repeated insistence that no “controlling legal authority” prohibited him from dialing for dollars that listeners were left wondering if there wasn’t some other authority--alien, maybe?--controlling his lips.

For sheer clumsiness, even Gore couldn’t match the congressional Republicans’ sleepwalk into disaster on the bill to aid flood victims in the Midwest and California. In a complex alchemy, the Republicans managed to transmute natural disaster into political disaster. By attaching to the relief bill unrelated provisions that Clinton opposed, GOP leaders like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott displayed an inexplicable urge to relive the mistakes they made in the last Congress.

Self-delusion, it turns out, is not a victimless crime. First, Republicans were skewered for holding the disaster aid hostage. Then, when Clinton called their bluff and vetoed the bill, the GOP fallback plan turned out to be capitulation, which enraged the party’s base. It was like getting hit by a swinging door on both sides of the head.

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And then hit again on the way out. Under fire from the right for caving to Clinton on disaster relief, House Republicans seem bent on producing a tax bill as objectionable to him as possible. That keen student of history, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, recently brushed aside Clinton’s complaints: “If the president wants to veto the first major tax cut in 16 years,” Gingrich huffed, “then we’ll let him explain why.”

Umm, guys, haven’t we been on this ride before? In 1995, didn’t Republicans say there was no way Clinton could veto the first balanced budget in a quarter-century? Clinton not only vetoed their plan, he nearly bludgeoned them to death with it. Unless the House accedes to the Senate’s more bipartisan approach, the GOP is heading for another collision with Clinton more likely to end with their face on the windshield than his.

It’s too early to place Clinton’s initiative on race in the certain crack-up category, but its wheels are already wobbling. The problem is he appears to be structuring the dialogue in a way more likely to harden than bridge the racial and ideological differences that have polarized the country on these issues.

Clinton is forgetting things he once knew. His most important contributions to the racial dialogue have come when he offers a new vision of reconciliation based on mutual responsibility and common standards. He liberated Democrats from their impotence on crime, for instance, by recognizing that tough law enforcement wasn’t a concession to racism, but an extension of civil rights to law-abiding, low-income citizens victimized by violence. None of that freshness was evident in his San Diego speech; without clear direction, it drifted toward conventional liberal formulations that provoked the predictable denunciation from conservatives and pointed ominously toward a year spent rehashing old arguments.

Even in this litany of failure, our final entry--Hollywood and the television networks--has managed to stand out. In devising the voluntary rating system for television programs, an industry committee led by Jack Valenti, Hollywood’s chief lobbyist, imperiously disregarded requests from parents’ groups for ratings that would flag shows with violent or sexual content. Hollywood still views communication with the public as a one-way process--it sells and the public buys. But parents weren’t buying the age-based rating system--especially when the self-rating networks slapped kid-friendly labels on programs that might make Larry Flynt blush.

Now, inevitably, after months of belligerent resistance, Valenti and the networks have only unpleasant options. With Congress and the White House anxiously watching, they can “voluntarily” adopt the content-based standards--or keep stonewalling and face the risk Washington will impose them. Either way, they’ve systematically deepened the impression that they are arrogant and out of touch. It would be difficult to script a more complete political and public relations disaster. Or a more deserving early leader in the race for the Chirac.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears in this space every Monday.


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