Baird Rejection Signals Clout Of Boomer Voter
Restless new political generation is seen as demanding higher standards in public life
WASHINGTON — THE people spoke.
At the end, Zoe Baird's nomination to be President Clinton's attorney general fell before a tidal wave of populist furor opposing her appointment.
Mr. Clinton immediately renewed his search for an attorney general, and will choose soon, perhaps as early as today. His list of candidates reportedly includes at least two federal judges, Patricia Wald and Abner Mikva.
Despite support from the White House, despite backing from Republican and Democratic senators, Ms. Baird and her powerful Washington allies quickly learned in the first week of the new presidential term that the voters are still giving the orders.
Analysts say Clinton's withdrawal of Baird's name was particularly significant following an election in which the public's anti-Washington sentiment was unusually strong.
Political scientist Robert Hollsworth says public pressure to derail the Baird nomination reflected this new level of voter activism. Voter awareness began rising several years ago with issues such as the House bank scandal, the congressional pay hike, the Clarence Thomas hearings, and the 1990 budget deal, which raised taxes.
The tidal wave of voter anger shows no signs of abating. On Thursday, just before Clinton dropped Baird's name, the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California tallied 1,328 calls against Baird's approval, 208 in favor. Two-thirds of the callers were women. The same day, Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois kept his phones manned until 10 p.m., and counted 1,987 against, 217 for Baird. One of his staff members taking calls described them as "very spontaneous, deeply heartfelt, and almost all in strong o pposition."
Why the passionate feelings?
The staffer said: "President Clinton talked during the campaign about having the law apply to all citizens equally. Wealthy citizens like Baird [a $507,000-a-year corporate attorney] should not have a different standard than the average man."
Baird's undoing was her violation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. IRCA makes it unlawful to hire anyone who has entered the United States illegally. The purpose of the law is twofold: to discourage illegal immigration and to protect jobs for US citizens.
Baird admitted that she and her husband, Yale Law School Prof. Paul Gewirtz, willfully violated the statute to hire a Peruvian couple, who provided child-care and chauffeur services. Baird and Professor Gewirtz also failed to pay Social Security taxes for the couple, a violation which gave them the appearance of exploiting immigrant labor.
Baird's rejection sends a warning to the new president. His every decision is being watched by a newly energized electorate.
Hugh Heclo, a political scientist at George Mason University, explains this by suggesting that America may be entering a new baby-boom era of politics.
Dr. Heclo says the 1990s are bringing into power the huge baby-boom generation of voters. Made skeptical by Watergate and the Vietnam eras, baby boomers are a restless, hard-to-satisfy group that has a long trail of overturned icons behind it.
"This democracy is changing," Heclo says. "People are not going to take it any more. Baird is just a straw in the wind, showing how penetrable our politics has become now."
He continues: "There will be more, rather than less [of this public involvement]. We are now into the political generation of the baby boomers, a group of people who have caused trouble with everything they have touched. They troubled our kindergartens, our schools, our colleges.
"Clinton is sitting on top of a volcano. This generation wants to be heard. They are against hypocrisy, and all that stuff. You are just beginning to see the start of something larger."
In this case, baby boomers joined others demanding that Clinton live up to his pledge to help those who "obey the law and play by the rules" - which Baird had not done. Dr. Hollsworth, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, says that when the dust settles, Clinton should emerge from the Baird incident unscathed, so long as his next choice meets his own high standards.
In the long run, however, there is danger for both Clinton and Congress in the public's mood.
Stuart Eizenstat, who worked in the Carter White House, says if Clinton had defended Baird any longer against what he called a "populist uprising," some critics would have begun to question his political judgment.
Like Heclo, Mr. Eisenstat says "people are fed up with politics as usual." This time Clinton got that message, he says, and in the case of Baird, "the public was ahead of the politicians, including the senators."