Of all the trends in modern American politics, none has been more destructive or dispiriting than the emergence of the permanent scandal state. In the quarter century since Watergate, it has become routine for each party to try to destroy the leaders of the other by attacking their ethics on the job, their morals at home--or both. At every turn, the press has followed the parties step for step, trumpeting each new allegation and digging tirelessly for new ones.
The swirl of charge and countercharge has reached a crescendo with the Republican drive to impeach President Clinton for trying to conceal his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. But now that the impeachment effort is faltering, there's reason to hope that the entire ugly cycle of ethical obliteration may finally lose some momentum as well.
It would be naive to assume an end to the political manipulation of scandal. "The whole scandal process is so deeply ingrained in the system, and is so frequently used by the players, that I'm not certain they will give it up easily or willingly," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, author of a book on political scandal-mongering. But it is difficult to interpret the stunning Democratic gains in last month's election as anything but a public cry of outrage against a capital that is now producing subpoenas faster than ideas. And that backlash may force both sides, but especially congressional Republicans, to lower the temperature in the ethics wars, at least for a while. "If there was a loser in this election," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, "it was government by investigation."
Clinton's recovery isn't the only evidence for that conclusion. Around the country, most major candidates who faced ethical attacks this year won their campaigns. The National Republican Congressional Committee ran ads in five races accusing Democrats of ethical misdeeds; each of those five Democrats won. In the Illinois governor's race, Democrat Glenn Poshard fiercely attacked Republican George Ryan for his efforts to secure clemency for a convicted murderer 25 years ago; Ryan won easily. So did Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), even after admitting an affair with a married man.
Democratic consultant Bob Doyle cautions that it's simplistic to conclude that scandal has entirely lost its sting; Doyle's client, Democrat Ken Lucas in Kentucky, pounded his Republican rival over a series of ethical missteps en route to a convincing victory in a conservative House district. But Lucas was very much the exception in a year when voters declined almost every invitation to judge candidates solely by their failings. "What was once a fatal bullet," says Sabato, "has now become nothing more than a pinprick."
Satisfaction with the economy helps explain why voters are less receptive to ethical attacks. But the key reason is that these charges have become so pervasive. In the 1980s, Democrats tried to unseat Ronald Reagan by running against the alleged "sleaze factor" in his administration. Later, House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich battered the entrenched Democratic majority by arguing that they were endemically corrupt; when Gingrich won the speakership in 1995, Democrats immediately forced an ethics investigation of him. From Clarence Thomas to U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, it has become common for opponents to attack presidential nominees not on their beliefs but on their behavior.
This relentless and nihilistic warfare--what author E.J. Dionne has termed "the politics of moral annihilation"--escalated to an entirely new level with the emergence of Bill Clinton in 1992. Pyramids were built with less energy than Republicans devoted to unearthing and publicizing allegations against him.
Partly because Clinton gives his enemies so many targets, there has rarely been a moment in his presidency when critics were not demanding a special prosecutor for one alleged offense or another. (Seven have already been appointed, and, even after rejecting an investigation of Vice President Al Gore last week, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno must still decide whether to appoint two others.) And, in the past two years, Gingrich deployed House committees to investigate so many allegations against the administration that the GOP had to create a special "reserve fund" to pay for all the overlapping inquiries. Last summer, House Democrats counted 38 active investigations into everything from using government computers for political purposes to lobbying by former aides to Gore.
In theory, the House can relaunch any or all of those probes next year, even after the drive to remove Clinton inevitably runs aground, either in the House or the Senate. But inside the GOP, many fear that it would be a recipe for disaster to respond to the voter backlash against the Lewinsky investigation by simply gearing up a new set of investigations.
"There's a big risk in that," says Scott Reed, the campaign manager in 1996 for Bob Dole--who also tried, without much success, to generate an uprising against Clinton's ethics. "This stuff is just not relevant in people's lives. That's the bottom line." Adds GOP consultant Ralph Reed: "With Gingrich gone . . . , the wind begins to go out of the sails of the scandal strategy across the board."
One senior House GOP aide says the new House leadership isn't likely to disagree. Last year's most controversial inquiry--the tumultuous investigation into Clinton's 1996 campaign fund-raising, led by Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana--is slated for both a lower profile and less funding, GOP sources say. Another high-stakes House inquiry--the more sedate investigation into the Chinese launch of American satellites, which is chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach--is planning to produce its final report no later than Jan. 2.
The ultimate irony is that this profusion of investigations into both the weighty and the frivolous has probably made it tougher for voters to differentiate between the two. Republicans declared Clinton's behavior a scandal so often that when the Lewinsky saga displayed him in behavior that was truly scandalous (if not necessarily impeachable), Americans treated it less as a moral crisis than a typical political shouting match. The public mostly shrugged its shoulders. Crying scandal with every breath turns out to have a lot in common with crying wolf.