Logrolling on Capitol Hill

FOR THE FIRST time since Bill Clinton's re-election, a reputable national poll shows that the president's popularity has taken a nosedive--to its lowest point ever, in fact. The survey by John Zogby (the only pollster to accurately predict the results of the 1996 election) was released at the week's end and shows Clinton with an approval rating of only 42 percent, which is below even Jimmy Carter's rating at its lowest point.

Since the punditocracy keeps telling us the economy is doing just fine (unless, of course, you're one of the unemployed or underemployed), and since there is no foreign-policy crisis claiming the attention of Americans, the reasons for Clinton's decline must lie elsewhere.

A second poll, released last week by the Center for Responsive Politics, suggests that the answer reposes in the ethical morass engulfing Clinton and the Washington establishment of both major political parties. Conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates with a healthy sample of 1,400 voters, the poll--as the Center puts it--"contradicts the picture of a cynical electorate bored with news stories about campaign finance scandals and willing to tolerate the abuses."

More than three-quarters of American feel "disgusted" (38 percent), "disappointed" (27 percent), or "ashamed" (9 percent) when they learn about questionable fund-raising practices. And a solid majority (60 percent) says that curtailing the corrupting power of money in politics should be a high priority on Washington's political agenda.

The survey buttresses previous national polls showing that a majority of Americans would welcome a third party: The Center's poll finds a huge majority (71 percent) believe that Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to engage in questionable fund-raising. And it shows how the campaign-money scandals are driving down voter turnout. More than a third (36 percent) say news about questionable fund-raising makes them feel it's not worth bothering to vote, while 71 percent say these scandals leave them believing that elected officials don't care what they think. There's a lot more detail in this poll to bolster Center director Kent Cooper's argument that it "should be a wake-up call for elected officials who think voters don't care about this issue. The message is that voters do care and they feel their elected officials don't care enough."

This poll is bad news for Clinton dauphin Al Gore, whose aggressive shakedowns of campaign contributions from corporate fat cats have been well-documented. And it doesn't help Dick Gephardt, who helped block real fund-raising reform when he was in the majority and remains one of Congress's most voracious PAC-men.

It also implies that a presidential candidate who was perceived as committed to genuine campaign finance reform would have enormous appeal. This has been the central strategy of Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's putative presidential candidacy. Earlier this year, Thompson led a revolt against his party's leadership in the Senate Republican caucus, and fought successfully to broaden the scope of his Government Affairs Committee's investigation of money scandals to include both major parties.

But now that committee's work has degenerated into the worst sort of cover-your-ass bipartisan squabbling. After Thompson's revolt in the GOP caucus, he pledged to honor Democrats' requests for subpoenas of Republican fund-raising records, and no less an authority than well-informed conservative columnist Robert Novak reported that Senate Republican leader Trent Lott considered him "out of control." However, Lott has now brought Thompson to heel: Last week Sen. John Glenn, the ranking Democrat on Thompson's committee, charged that Thompson--under pressure from Lott--had refused Democratic requests for subpoenas. Only 14 have been approved, as opposed to more than 140 GOP subpoenas issued to Democrats. And the Republican National Committee and its front groups have been stonewalling the handful of subpoenas for GOP records that the committee did issue, providing little or no documentation without protest from Chairman Thompson. At the same time, Glenn and the Democrats opposed sending committee investigators to China to interview witnesses in connection with foreign campaign cash.

The result: Next month's public Senate hearings on the money scandal have had their credibility tarnished in advance, and the slim hopes for any meaningful campaign reform have been all but eliminated. The system has won again.

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