- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2002

Eager to tarnish the administration's ethical image, Democrats are trying to link the White House to the Enron bankruptcy scandal by pointing to the big contributions Enron officials made to President Bush's campaign.
But Bush strategists say there is no quid pro quo connection between administration actions and the campaign donations that Enron executives made to the president's campaign.
Nothing better demonstrates the administration's independence and integrity in the Enron case, strategists say, than the fact that when Enron's chief executive called two top Cabinet officials with a plea for help to shore up its failing bond rating, they decided not to intervene.
"Democrats are attempting to make a link between Enron and the Bush administration. It doesn't exist," said Matthew Dowd, the president's campaign pollster.
"Some people are saying that it could be another Whitewater scandal, but as far as I know, there was no involvement personally by the president, or any decision by anyone in the administration that affected Enron's employees. Nobody has shown that there was any direct link between the problem this company had and anyone in the government," he said.
Mr. Dowd, now an adviser to the Republican National Committee, said the collapse of Enron is not a major concern to voters, who see no relationship between campaign contributions and the company's demise.
"Because a company had problems and its executives gave candidates money, it's not like voters think there is a link between the two. There is no link being made by voters," he said.
But Democratic National Committee officials say that the scandal has already hurt the White House because of the slow, uneven way the details about Enron have emerged, including last week's disclosure that Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans received calls for help last October from Enron Chairman Kenneth L. Lay.
"When the constant drip, drip, drip of an investigation hits this close to people in the White House and in the administration, it is going to be a real liability to them," said DNC spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri. "With the disclosures coming out bit by bit, it takes its toll on the public's perception of the administration, as investigations of the past have taken their toll."
White House officials said they expect the Democrats to "make something out of this," as one presidential adviser put it, but Republican strategists said that any attempts would fail.
"They'll try to do something with this, but it will go nowhere. People will see it for what it is, because this administration had nothing to do with Enron directly, unlike Bill Clinton with the Whitewater real estate scandal," said Bill Dal Col, a Republican campaign consultant.
"What you've got here is a clear case of criminal-like activity in the upper echelons of a public corporation. The administration has done the right thing in disclosing the calls to the two Cabinet secretaries, and they did the right thing by [not intervening on Enron's behalf]," Mr. Dal Col said.
"Unlike the Clinton administration, we wouldn't have heard about these phone calls for years at best. The Bush administration in the early stages has set the tone by being open, honest and forthright something the Clinton administration never was," he said.
But independent pollster John Zogby thinks the Enron scandal "has political legs."
"It has the possibility of hurting the Republicans, although not without some risk for the Democrats," he said. "It's been admitted that, on an informal basis, the president talked to Enron people and that Vice President [Richard B.] Cheney talked with Enron people when he put together the energy plan, which was not exactly a public relations home run.
"Oil companies are always great targets for populist rhetoric that works in this country. Bush and Cheney come from oil. That makes it relatively easy to create an argument," he said.
"On the other hand, it does have risks for the Democrats. They got a pretty decent chunk of money from Enron for their campaigns, including some of the more up-front accusers like Sen. Joe Lieberman [of Connecticut] and Sen. Charles Schumer [of New York]," he said.
"The big risks for Democrats is that just at a point where Americans are starting to believe in their government again, I don't think Democrats want to create cynicism and be responsible for a new cynicism," he said.
In an analysis of campaign contributions, the Center for Public Integrity said the Bush campaign received $74,200 in contributions from two dozen Enron officials, part of $800,000 in political contributions they made between 1999 and 2001 that also went to the national parties and to members of Congress.
Mr. Dal Col thinks that the Democrats "are going to have a tough time" tarring Mr. Bush and the GOP with Enron campaign money "because the last time I looked, 70 percent of the Senate in both parties took contributions from Enron."
One major factor working in the administration's favor is that the investigations are entirely focused on Enron, not the administration. The Justice Department task force, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Labor Department and several congressional committees are seeking information about how Enron officials overstated profits and hid their debts and whether they defrauded investors.
Meanwhile, if Democrats do engage in fingerpointing, the administration's supporters say they have plenty of ammunition to fire back.
"The partnerships that hid billions of dollars in Enron's debts from investors and that brought the company down occurred between 1997 and 2000," said a former Bush campaign adviser. "The government's regulators in those years were Clinton appointees."

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