- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

The first 29 months of President Bush’s administration have been strikingly free of major scandal, depriving his detractors of a powerful political weapon that was a fixture of the Clinton era.

However, after failing to tie Mr. Bush to several scandals, including Enron, some Democrats and members of the press are trying to turn the hunt for weapons in Iraq into a scandal that strikes at the very heart of Mr. Bush’s popularity — his veracity.

In the first 18 months of former President Clinton’s first term, his administration was rocked by numerous scandals or major controversies. These included Whitewater, Travelgate, Paula Jones, homosexuals in the military and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s failed health care reform.

Mr. Bush, by contrast, largely has been untainted by scandals as he nears the midway point of his third year in office. Political experts said that has helped the president enact more of his agenda than they initially thought possible.

“Political capital is a very finite commodity and you want to spent it strategically,” said Matthew T. Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “Previous administrations have had to spend their political capital — or have just had it deducted from their account — through various scandals.”

For example, when the Clinton scandals reached critical mass — beginning with the Monica Lewinsky affair and ending in the first impeachment of an elected president in U.S. history — the president was politically paralyzed for more than a year, leaving his agenda largely unfulfilled.

Unencumbered by such imbroglios, Mr. Bush has been able to devote his full energies to enacting an ambitious agenda. On the domestic front, he has pushed through two of the three largest tax cuts in history, wrested control of the Senate from Democrats, created the Department of Homeland Security, and extracted education and Medicare reform bills from Congress.

On foreign policy, the president has won two wars, enacted the doctrine of pre-emption, deployed missile defense and marginalized Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. That list of accomplishments might have been shorter if scandals had sapped Mr. Bush’s resources.

Not everyone, however, considers the administration squeaky clean.

“Certainly the Democrats on Capitol Hill would disagree that the administration is scandal-free,” said Democratic analyst Scott Segal of Bracewell & Patterson law firm. “What they would say is there’s a scandal born of commercial conflict.”

He cited the flap caused when Vice President Dick Cheney, who was once chairman of the energy company Halliburton, was put in charge of developing the administration’s energy policy. Eyebrows were also raised when Enron executives asked administration officials to help their sinking company — a request that was rebuffed.

Mr. Segal called such cases “a juvenile variety of guilt by association. You know, ‘Even though we can’t point to any particular thing you’re doing wrong, you must be doing something wrong.’

“That is a very weak, pale imitation of the kind of personal scandal which can threaten to derail an administration,” he said. “President Bush has been untouched by the taint of personal scandal and certainly the taint of sexual scandal. Those types of scandals are uniquely newsworthy and uniquely debilitating.

“The president’s Democratic opponents have attempted to manufacture scandals out of whole cloth to replace or fill the vacuum left by his relatively scandal-free personal record,” Mr. Segal added.

Some believe the latest such effort involves the ongoing search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. Democrats and the press are becoming increasingly critical of the president and some are even intimating that he overstated the weapons threat to justify the start of war.

“This WMD story has the potential to remove the proverbial finger from the scandal dam,” said Mr. Felling. “One of the few gaps in their story has been the fact that they have seemed to move the goal posts a bit.

“At first it was ‘weapons’ and then they added the term ‘weapons programs,’” he said. “That was publicly noticed.”

Mr. Felling, however, said he does not believe the Bush administration will be seriously damaged by the WMD flap.

“This administration has been adroit at steering the debate in more strategic directions,” he said. “They’ve done such a masterful job at squelching any potential scandal that there are two scenarios that could play out.

“The press will either end up exerting every investigative muscle possible,” he added. “Or it will realize that those muscles have atrophied in covering the most message-focused administration in history.”

The public appears unconcerned about the media’s atrophied scandal muscles, in part because it experienced so much scandal fatigue during the Clinton years.

“We were just exhausted with one after another after another,” said Republican strategist Rich Galen, publisher of mullings.com. “It affected the country as a whole. The public was no longer looking for trouble.”

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