Horse-Trading

The squabble between Jesse Helms and William Weld over the latter's confirmation as ambassador to Mexico has more to do with personal pique than ideology.

IT IS A sign of the doldrums engulfing the Beltway press corps in the summer congressional recess that so much is being made of William Weld's doomed fight-by-sound-bite to be confirmed as Bill Clinton's ambassador to Mexico. When Weld held his unusual press conference to announce he was stepping down as the Republican governor of Massachusetts to campaign full-time for his confirmation by the Senate, the nomination was already a dead letter. The opposition of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms guaranteed that. But all this has more to do with personal pique than with ideology.

Weld, a rich Boston Brahmin who is married to a great-granddaughter of Teddy Roosevelt, had long ago tired of being governor of the Bay State. A man of capacious ego, he has ever seen himself as a future president. Indeed, one of his principal aides had as his main assignment the strategizing of Weld's national ambitions. So when Weld decided to run for the Senate against Democratic incumbent John Kerry last year, it was the first step in Weld's drive for the White House.

During a series of televised debates in that Senate campaign, Kerry needled Weld by asking him whether he'd vote to make Jesse Helms chairman of Foreign Relations. Weld, seeking to curry favor with swing independent voters of liberal bent, said no. That's the real reason for Helms's opposition to the Weld nomination--all the nonsense about Weld's being "soft on drugs" was dredged up by Helms's staff as a smoke screen to justify blocking the appointment.

Enter Dick Lugar, the Republican senator from Indiana, who made headlines with an assault on Helms's "dictatorial" refusal even to accord Weld a public hearing, then escalated his attack by threatening to tamper with the subsidies for tobacco-growing states (Lugar is chairman of the Agriculture Committee). This, too, had everything to do with personal pique and little with ideology. Lugar considers himself his party's senatorial expert on foreign policy--indeed, his ill-fated presidential campaign was based on that theme--and thought that gave him the right to succeed to the Foreign Relations chairmanship when the Republicans took control of Congress. But Helms outmaneuvered Lugar in backroom bargaining, and snatched the post for himself. Thus, like Helms's opposition to Weld, Lugar's attacks on Helms mean little more than it's payback time.

Weld's appointment by Clinton to the ambassadorial post was also motivated by old-fashioned political horse-trading. Weld had originally been slated to become attorney general in Clinton's second-term cabinet, giving bipartisan cover to the dumping of Janet Reno, who had alienated the White House by appointing special prosecutors to investigate Clinton administration crimes and cover-ups. But word of Reno's planned evisceration raised the hackles of the press--with whom the Waco baby-fryer has an inexplicably good image--and when Reno capitulated to White House pressure by refusing to name a special prosecutor in the campaign-fundraising scandal in order to hang onto her job, Weld was out of luck. The Mexico ambassadorship was Weld's consolation prize.

It seemed a clever move. It helped pay the White House's considerable debt to Teddy Kennedy, who has been one of the administration's staunchest defenders: Teddy had lobbied hard for Weld. First for the attorney generalship, then for the diplomatic posting, to remove Weld from the governorship. This would clear the way for Joe Kennedy Jr. to win the statehouse. Weld is highly popular in Massachusetts--exit polls from his Senate race showed that many voters backed Kerry because they preferred to keep Weld as governor--and Weld's lieutenant governor is a colorless nonentity with a scarred financial past who was considered easy to beat (this was before the eruption of the marital and sexual-tabloid scandals concerning Joe and his brother). And the White House thought it would win points for bipartisanship by sending Weld to Mexico.

But the clashing egos of Weld and Helms garbled this scenario. Long bent on appeasing the arch-conservative Helms (Madeline Albright is the ass-kisser-in-chief), Clinton & Co. have not lifted a finger to secure Weld's confirmation.

Weld's surprise resignation from a job he no longer wanted to ostensibly try to secure a job he could not get has little to do with the Mexico post and everything to do with Weld's ambition: By frontally tackling Helms in the media, Weld has nicely positioned himself with the liberal Massachusetts electorate for another Senate race in 2000, when Teddy Kennedy has said he'll retire. Meanwhile, he can stay in the spotlight by posturing as a national spokesman for the handful of remaining Republican social moderates (on fiscal matters Weld is as right-wing as anyone in the GOP).

Clash of ideologies? Hogwash. It's just politics as usual.

 
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