The Democratic search for scandal

Posted: Jun 12, 2003 12:00 AM

The Democrats need a scandal. With only 17 months until Election 2004, George W. Bush is riding high in the opinion polls. The economy looks to be on the rebound. Reconstruction in Iraq is underway.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is in flux. Its potential presidential candidates viciously attack one another in the hopes of gaining the nomination. The lead public relations organ of the Democratic Party, The New York Times, has entered full crisis mode with the resignations of executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd. The party's leading newsmaker, Hillary Clinton, is widely despised.

The Democrats have no place to turn. By opposing the president, they have painted themselves into a corner -- the better the country does, the worse they do politically. Only one avenue of escape remains: scandal.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, no scandal looms on the horizon. Why? Because political scandal requires that the public distrust the politician in question. People have to believe the politician is not a "nice guy." But George W. Bush has the anti-scandal vaccine: likeability. He might as well be called the Pam President. You can fry him, you can grill him, but nothing will stick to him.

It's not as though the Democrats haven't tried. They tried the Watergate-style scandal. For three years since the 2000 election, Democrats have claimed that Bush and his band of slimy Republicans "stole" the presidency. In language strikingly similar to that used by Richard Nixon's enemies during the 1974 scandal, Democrats continue to denounce Bush's "dirty tricks" of 2000. But this scandal-that-wasn't played itself out. The American public largely turned its back on this argument, especially after Sept. 11. Watergate worked with Nixon because Nixon, dubbed "Tricky Dick" in 1950, had assumed the image of slickster in the hearts and minds of Americans already. But Bush is widely perceived as good-natured Gallant with a touch of Goofus.

Realizing that the "Bush-as-Grinch, America-as-Whoville" strategy wasn't cutting it, the Democrats turned to the Whitewater-style scandal. The Democrats got the brilliant idea that since Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were both successful businessmen, the administration had to be funneling government cash to its friends. Most notoriously, the Democrats alleged that the Bush administration had knowingly overlooked Enron's corruption and had in fact aided Enron. Again, the Democrats failed. While Whitewater had substance to it, the Enron-Bush link simply didn't exist.

Since Sept. 11, the Democrats have become desperate -- and they've lashed out in a big way. First, imitating revisionist historians of the post-FDR era, the Democrats claimed that Bush had "failed to connect the dots." Ironically, the most scandal-plagued first lady in American history was the first in line to slander President Bush; Hillary stood on the floor of the Senate, asking shrilly, "The president knew what?" It turns out the president most to blame for Sept. 11 was Hillary's husband. Oops.

After the "blame Bush" approach fell through, Democrats went into a tailspin. Trying feverishly to work up a scandal, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) went into hysterics on the Senate floor after President Bush flew onto the USS Abraham Lincoln to congratulate victorious troops. The monetary cost of the flight was too great, Byrd said. From the most notorious pork lover in the Senate, this speech came off as nothing less than hilarious.

Finally, the Democrats think they've found something to latch onto: unfound weapons of mass destruction. Hearkening back to their Gulf of Tonkin days, Democrats scream and yell that President Bush lied when he told the American people that Saddam Hussein posed a threat. But this strategy, too, is destined to fail. President Bush is too trustworthy. And if that isn't enough, he can send out Colin Powell, the most beloved public figure in America, to vouch for him.

The Democrats have tried every trick in the book to portray George W. Bush as a "bad guy." They have consistently failed because Bush is likeable. Is there anything the Democrats can do to take Bush down? Only if they dig up a sex scandal. While other scandals require that the public already think of the target as a "bad guy," sex scandals automatically brand someone a "bad guy."

Unfortunately for Democrats, George W. Bush is the real deal: likeable and honorable. His likeability means he can't be portrayed as nasty. His faithfulness means he can't be portrayed as untrustworthy. There's no scandal in sight for the Democrats. Look out for the Bush tidal wave in 2004.