- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

There they go again. Unable to develop a solid, sustainable election-year issue with political traction, Democratic leaders are now attempting to blame all of the business scandals on President Bush and the Republicans.
House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the chief architect of this sleazy strategy, charges that the whole mess grew out of an environment that Republicans created right after they took control of the House in 1994 and proceeded to pass their "Contract With America" agenda.
How did the Republicans do this? Mr. Gephardt claims that after years of repealing government regulations and attacking the federal income tax code, they "created an environment" that encouraged dishonest corporate executives to cook their books and cheat investors.
Think about that even for a moment, and you begin to see how shallow and desperate Mr. Gephardt has become with just four short months to go before the elections.
Deeply frustrated that just about every political issue he has tried to cook up has failed to catch hold with voters, Mr. Gephardt believes that the Democrats have a chance to win back the House by playing the "corporate responsibility" issue, blaming Republicans for every accounting scandal.
Other Democrats are following his lead. Al Gore, trying to jump start a third run for the presidency, bitterly attacked Mr. Bush last week for economic policies that he said were "a total catastrophe for our country." Those policies have resulted in "a total lack of confidence in our national economic policy, in the integrity of our accounting system, in the way government is being run," he said.
Left unattended, these business scandals could balloon into a big issue. Investors are angry over the loss of confidence that has overtaken Wall Street and the impact this has had on their 401(k) retirement accounts. With 50 percent of all Americans invested in stocks, the "investor class" could become a powerful political force in the fall if it is aroused.
But that isn't going to happen because Mr. Bush and the Republicans are hitting this issue hard maybe too hard for people like me, who fear that excessive rules and regulatory bureaucracies can hamstring a dynamic, free-market economy. As for Mr. Gephardt's ludicrous charges, if I may borrow a line from John McEnroe, "You cannot be serious."
The "Contract With America" agenda had nothing to do with the corporate scandals we are experiencing. Republicans passed welfare reform to get people off the doles and into real jobs to become independent and self-sufficient. They passed a $500-per-child tax credit (which Mr. Bush has doubled) to help strengthen families. They cut capital gains taxes to encourage business investment, economic growth and jobs. They spent more money to build prisons to help slash the crime rate.
How did any of this encourage the kinds of self-serving corporate corruption that has been at the center of these scandals? In the past several months, House Republican leaders have been pushing legislation to clean up the accounting industry, strengthen retirement funds and stiffen federal penalties for corporate wrongdoers. "It's not like we're protecting corporate criminals," said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, chairman of the Republican congressional campaign committee. Democrats, he says, "have no moral high ground on this at all." In fact, the Democrats appear to have benefited from these ill-gotten corporate gains.
The Washington Post reported that "a review of political contributions from 17 companies under scrutiny for questionable business practices found that more than 43 percent of their money in the past 18 months went to Democrats," according to figures from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Bear in mind that these corrupt practices that have come to light at Enron, WorldCom and a half-dozen other major companies go all the way back to the 1990s. And we know who was in charge then.
If Mr. Gephardt is looking for someone to blame, he would do better to blame the Clinton decade that was defined by get-rich-quick schemes, questionable dot-com companies whose stocks soared but whose businesses made no money and showed no profits, and greed on an unimaginable level. In the end, the bubble burst and all of it came crashing down, wiping out ordinary stockholder savings while insiders sold out early and pocketed billions.
If there was one administration that "created an environment" for corruption, as Mr. Gephardt put it, surely it was Bill Clinton's sordid campaign-finance scandals that merchandised the White House for all it was worth in direct violation of federal laws that forbid such activities. Mr. Gore was one of the chief fundraisers working the phones and shaking down business contributors, despite a federal ban against raising money in the White House.
When people at the top are bending or breaking the rules, it isn't hard to see how that could influence those further down the feeding chain in corporate boardrooms.
In short, if Mr. Gephardt marches to war with this ammunition in a last-ditch effort, he had better seek cover from the hail of return fire: The reports of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore accepting campaign contributions from foreign businessmen who were looking for favors and getting them.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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