Ballot Box

Enron as Whitewater

Is the budding Enron scandal comparable to Whitewater? Many Democrats argue that even before the investigation has gotten up to speed, it already looks much worse. To them, Whitewater was a politically motivated fishing expedition that failed to uncover any significant executive branch wrongdoing—even though the prosecutorial juggernaut it set in motion was nearly terminal to the Clinton presidency. The Enron scandal, in this view, differs from Whitewater because it has actual substance. The “bankrupt energy giant,” as journalistic vernacular now has it, was intertwined in various ways with various members of the Bush administration. They worked for it as consultants and lobbyists, held loads of its shares, and accepted its enormous soft money contributions. In returning Enron’s bountiful favors, the Bushies may have contributed in causing real harm to ordinary people.

To Republicans, on the other hand, the Whitewater-Enron comparison is skewed in the opposite direction. In their view, Whitewater was an investigation into personal corruption and a cover-up on the part of the president and his wife that led, albeit indirectly, to resignations, convictions, and one impeachment. Conservatives contrast this to what they describe as the mere “business scandal” of Enron, in which there is no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of any Bush administration official.

I would argue that Enron is neither worse nor better than Whitewater at a similar stage of development. It’s the same. A year into Clinton’s first term, Republicans were pursuing a variety of Whitewater investigations as aggressively as they possibly could, despite the lack of any compelling evidence of wrongdoing by administration officials. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, who headed the most prominent investigation, hopped from hypothesis to hypothesis without ever proving one of them. Republicans pushed Whitewater as hard as they did because they recognized a big political opportunity. Even short of proof, they saw a chance to put a Democratic administration on the defensive, to illustrate their view of the Clintons as sleazy and secretive, and perhaps to reap some unanticipated windfall. They succeeded in these goals beyond their wildest expectations.

With no stronger evidence of any government official doing anything crooked, most Democrats now view Enron in precisely the same light: as a heaven-sent opportunity to embarrass the Bush administration, to illustrate the proposition that Bush is in bed with corporations (especially in the field of energy), and maybe get lucky in some way they can’t predict.

The temptations of payback are very great. But Democrats who thought Whitewater involved excesses of congressional investigative resources, prosecutorial zeal, and media attention should give serious thought to nurturing all the same faults this time around. The reason is not so much that the Enron investigation has the potential to backfire on the Democrats, as some have warned. Rather, it’s that the Enron investigation might prove successful for them in much the way Whitewater did for Republicans. That is, it could promote their political advantage in a very marginal way while causing great harm to the nation’s political culture and ultimately leaving most sane people scratching their heads about what exactly those folks in the administration did that was so terrible.

In contemplating this choice, Democrats find themselves once again face to face with the perennial issue of whether moral superiority is a political trait worth having. The Democratic argument for aiming Enron as a political arrow at Bush is that there’s no reward in Washington for good behavior. Fiscal responsibility lets Republicans brand Democrats as the party of higher taxes. Democratic support for campaign-finance reforms lets the press brand them as hypocrites for playing by the rules of the system they haven’t been able to change. Al Gore’s comparative scrupulousness about tactics in the Florida recount helped hand the election to Bush. So why, many Democrats wonder, should they not use Enron against the GOP the way the GOP would surely use it against them if the positions were reversed?

The answer is Whitewater—a scandal that hurt a Democratic president without doing much to benefit Republicans. Perhaps conservatives felt themselves better off with a wounded President Clinton, just as many Democrats would prefer a damaged Bush to an empowered Bush. But the continuation of politics by means of scandal tends to drag Democrats and Republicans down together. By filling the air with the odor of bad faith, Whitewater poisoned relations between the parties. By indiscriminately saddling officials with big legal bills and unjustifiably ruining several careers, it deterred the kind of capable people Washington needs to attract. And by distracting the public from issues that were vastly more important, it harmed issues both sides care about. The ultimate result of Whitewater wasn’t that it damaged Democrats. It was that it damaged respect for government.

The Enron scandal has similar negative potential. Liberals might relish the idea of putting a spike in Bush’s energy policies, for example. But if they succeed in painting the president as corrupt or untrustworthy, it will also harm Bush’s ability to act as a strong leader of the war effort, an area of much greater importance where Democrats strongly support him. Four months after Sept. 11, talking about something other than Osama Bin Laden feels like a bit of relief. But in comparison to the central importance of the War on Terrorism, Enron is just Gary Condit without the sex angle. The spirit of bipartisanship is bound to fade somewhat in an election year. But burying it too completely and too quickly with the nation at war just seems like a bad idea.

In practice, the issue isn’t whether Democrats push to investigate Enron. Everyone agrees that they should. The issue is the spirit and purpose of the coming inquiries. The mantra that Enron is a business scandal, not a political scandal, isn’t really accurate. Enron involves both a business scandal and a political scandal. But in its political dimension, Enron doesn’t appear to be primarily a Bush administration scandal. To the extent that ties to Enron influenced the behavior of Bush officials, indications are that those ties prevented officials from considering any actions they might have taken to forestall the company’s looming bankruptcy late last year. Some Democrats, trying to have it both ways, now assert that the failure to intervene on behalf of Enron’s victimized employees is the real issue. And perhaps so, but if soft money has the potential to induce government paralysis as well as favoritism, that surely is a systemic problem, not just an instance of Republican malfeasance.

The more fruitful place to look for political abuses committed on behalf of Enron is in Congress. By the time Ken Lay made his calls to the Bush Cabinet, his company’s troubles were past the point of remedy. But how did Enron—and its enabler Arthur Andersen—escape the kind of regulation and oversight that might have prevented such troubles in the first place? Enron’s political cash appears to have bought a lot of big juicy steaks that kept the watchdogs quiet while the place was being robbed. That doesn’t mean both parties are equally at fault. But it does point to the likelihood that both deserve some fault—and that the old Watergate-to-Whitewater model of Congress ferreting out executive branch corruption doesn’t apply very well here.

As Sen. Fred Thompson found out when he chaired hearings about the 1996 campaign-financing scandals, it’s nearly impossible for Congress to investigate its own misdeeds in a fair-minded way. But it seems to me that Democrats have a responsibility to try even harder this time. Back during the Thompson committee hearings, the most eloquent advocate of even-handedness was one Sen. Joseph Lieberman. As chairman of the Government Affairs Committee, Lieberman is now preparing to preside over the most prominent of the Enron inquests. He should begin by reviewing his old comments. And should Lieberman be tempted to find fault exclusively with the Republicans, a glance in Sen. Torricelli’s direction should be sufficient to steer him right.