Bush’s Shadow Campaigners - Policy Or Politics?
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Dick Cheney got laughs when he told audiences in Indiana and Tennessee this month that ″I’m not involved in politics anymore, now that I’m at the Pentagon.″
The defense secretary never mentioned the name Bill Clinton. Still, he’s doing his part for the unofficial campaign, a mix of roadshow and backstage maneuvers by administration officials working to re-elect George Bush.
Democrats and government watchdog groups say they’re not amused by the spectacle and raise questions about ethics and taxpayer subsidies and unreported political contributions.
But White House officials continue to plot campaign strategy deep inside the Beltway, while others in the administration scatter across the land to tear down Clinton, the Arkansas governor and Democratic nominee.
Cabinet members converged on Houston last month for partisan duty during the convention. Now they show up in a city here or there, often the same day as a visit by Clinton or running mate Al Gore, busily knocking down whatever the Democrats have just said or are about to say.
Hours before Clinton was due to arrive in Jacksonville, Fla., last Wednesday, Labor Secretary Lynn Martin was there to call his economic plan ″slippy″ and ″slidy″ and certain to cost the country 1.5 million jobs. Bush’s plan, she said, was practical and real.
That same day in Shreveport, La., hours after Gore had come to call, Energy Secretary James Watkins was there to accuse Clinton and Gore of favoring ″a radical ban on all offshore drilling″ that would be a disaster for the oil industry. The Democrats say they want to stop new drilling, not all drilling.
Cheney, slightly more subtle, expressed concern in Indianapolis earlier this month about ″some critics (who) are calling for deeper cuts in our armed forces that would surely destroy our military capabilities.″
Clinton has proposed defense cuts twice as deep as those planned by Bush.
Other high-ranking officials on the campaign trail have included budget Director Richard Darman; Education Secretary Lamar Alexander; Health Secretary Louis Sullivan; Michael Deland, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Pat Saiki, head of the Small Business Administration; and Bob Martinez, the national drug policy coordinator.
Then there’s the behind-the-scenes crew headed by White House chief of staff James A. Baker III. He has essentially run the campaign since his return from the State Department last month, despite a memo last November in which White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray told all White House staff that ″anything that is obviously campaign-related should not be done here.″
Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, urged Bush in a July 24 letter not to bring Baker to the White House to run the campaign. He said it would be ″wrong and improper″ and counter to a well-established tradition of public officials leaving government to aid presidential campaigns.
Bush did it anyway, to the annoyance of at least one registered Republican who vented her feelings in a recent letter to the New York Times.
″I have not contributed to any Republican campaign this year,″ wrote Elaine Hendrie of Bellport, N.Y. ″I am now being forced to make an indirect contribution to the Bush re-election campaign because Mr. Baker and the considerable staff he is bringing with him to the White House will be paid from my tax revenues.″
While Cabinet members and White House employees are not barred from political activity, the Hendrie letter underscores potentially problematic aspects of the way the system works.
If political work is done on government time and-or at government expense, that means taxpayer money is paying for activities not authorized by law, said Alan Morrison, litigation director for the Public Citizen watchdog group.
He said that would mean taxpayers were making contributions that normally are required to be reported to federal authorities - and are outright banned during the publicly financed general-election campaign.
The bottom line is fairness, Morrison said.
″The president shouldn’t be able to commandeer large amounts of troops and equipment to run the campaign when the other side doesn’t have that opportunity and has no means of combatting it,″ he said.
Democrats aren’t making a major-league fuss, perhaps an acknowledgment that some amount of White House politicking is par for the course whatever the party of the incumbent. But their irritation did take concrete form last week when the Democratic-controlled Senate voted to bar top anti-drug officials from political activities.
The target was Martinez, who has spent the season dispensing sharp partisan rhetoric and was part of the GOP ″truth squad″ dispatched to New York to counter Democratic convention attacks.
The Senate rationale was a tradition that certain officials - such as the FBI director and the secretary of state - normally stay out of campaigns. But Martinez wasn’t buying it. ″This,″ he snapped, ″is nothing more than politics masquerading as principle.″