Ballot Box

White-Collar Willie Hortons

How corporate scandal threatens the GOP.

Every once in a while, an issue comes along that allows one party or the other to recast a series of other issues, changing the public’s perception of the essential difference between Democrats and Republicans. Such an issue is now emerging in the scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and other corporations. Democrats, who up to now have been the party of permissiveness, are trying to foist that label on Republicans.

For decades, Democrats have labored under the reputation of being the party of the counterculture. Republicans called Democrats the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” while claiming God, patriotism, and law-and-order for themselves. Democrats were the party of the ACLU; Republicans were the party of cops. Democrats were the “mommy party”; Republicans were the “daddy party.” Democrats were the party of weakness; Republicans were the party of strength.

Ronald Reagan projected military power and economic vitality. George H.W. Bush beat the “wimp factor” by making Michael Dukakis look soft on crime and defense and by turning the Pledge of Allegiance into a presidential campaign issue. The best Bill Clinton could do was wrestle the crime issue away from Republicans by supporting the death penalty, “keeping guns out of the hands of criminals,” and putting “100,000 new cops on the beat.” Even that triumph was purely defensive. In the wake of Sept. 11, the GOP has regained its advantage. Nobody thinks Democrats will stand or fight more firmly against terrorism than Republicans have.

Now come the corporate corruption scandals. Suddenly, the villains of the hour are the ones Democrats have consistently warned us about. The populist rhetoric that seemed so out of place in the 2000 election, when Al Gore railed against “powerful forces” who threatened “the people,” has found its logical context.

On June 28, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., rose on the floor of the Senate and implicitly accused the GOP of fostering malfeasance at Enron, WorldCom, ImClone, and other companies. He poked Dick Cheney and George H. W. Bush in the eye by mentioning Global Crossing’s collapse and Halliburton’s exposure to “charges of improperly recording revenue.” The root of these scandals, Daschle argued, was “a deregulatory, permissive atmosphere that has relied too much on corporate America to police itself. It is as if the line between right and wrong, legal and illegal, acceptable and unacceptable was so little enforced that it became blurred.” It was time for the government to lay down the law on white-collar crime, said Daschle. “Self-policing is no replacement for a vigilant cop on the beat.”

Daschle’s speech signaled a change not only in the way Democrats will talk about the business scandals, but also in the context in which the larger issue of law and order will be debated. Willie Horton has given way to Arthur Andersen. If Democrats have their way, when voters hear words such as “permissiveness,” “right and wrong,” and “cops on the beat,” they’ll think of Enron, Army Secretary Thomas White, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Sunday on Face the Nation, Daschle pounded these new mantras with impressive message discipline. Four times in three minutes, he blamed the business scandals on a “permissive” climate of deregulation. Twice, he called for “more cops on the beat” to catch and scare straight white-collar crooks. Three times, he demanded mobilization to “go after the bad actors.” Five times, he urged the government to get “tougher” on corporate wrongdoers.

Daschle’s choice of words has several purposes. First, it takes Democratic instincts that previously seemed lax and puts them in a context that makes them look vigilant. When Daschle urges “regulation” and “more resources” to fight sleazy accounting, it doesn’t sound like the same old liberal profligacy. Second, the new rhetoric takes whole issues that used to be talked about in terms of compassion and makes them look like issues of toughness. When Daschle talks about pensions and retirement security in light of corporate malfeasance, he doesn’t sound like a bleeding heart; he sounds like a crime fighter. Third, Daschle’s language makes Republican policies that used to look tough on bureaucrats look soft on swindlers. On Face the Nation, he tweaked Bush by accusing his appointee, Harvey Pitt, of running a “kinder and gentler SEC.”

In a press conference Monday afternoon, Bush pledged to “vigorously pursue people who break the law.” In the days to come, he’ll elaborate on that mission. But the shift from debating terrorism to debating corporate treachery is more than a change in the issue of the week. Bush and other Republicans aren’t just being drawn into a new topic. They’re being drawn into a whole new context that threatens their political standing across the board.