THE Republican Party is ``obsessed with Watergate,'' says David Wilhelm, the Democratic national chairman.
Mr. Wilhelm meant ``Whitewater,'' of course, but as the investigation of the Clinton White House expands, President Nixon's experience in the Watergate affair is much on Washington's mind these days.
The Democratic chairman accuses the GOP of exploiting every angle of Whitewater for partisan gain. At a Monitor breakfast meeting with reporters on Friday, Wilhelm charged that ``the Republican obsession with this issue ... reveals a political motivation.''
He says prior to Whitewater, GOP leaders saw the political tide moving against them. The economy was growing. President Clinton had moved forcefully on health care. The Democratic Senate had passed a tough crime measure. The White House was crafting a bill for welfare reform.
Republicans were desperate to ``turn around the dynamic,'' Wilhelm says. So they latched onto Whitewater in hopes of restoring ``gridlock'' prior to the 1994 elections.
Eventually, Wilhelm sees Whitewater receding as the president and the first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, make their side of the story known.
The chairman insists that Whitewater is essentially a ``public relations problem,'' not one of wrongdoing.
He concedes: ``This could have been handled differently - and better.''
Despite the Senate's 98-to-0 decision to hold hearings on Whitewater, Wilhelm predicts public attention will soon return to core issues like welfare reform and health care. He also sees the steadily improving economy favoring the Democrats.
The chairman says despite the expenditure of ``millions'' by the news media and by such groups as Citizens United, headed by conservative Floyd Brown, to find dirt on the Clintons, ``nothing ever comes of it.''
The same will be true of Whitewater, he says.
[The Senate's top Democrat and Republican will meet this week to iron out details on Whitewater hearings, the Associated Press reports. Majority Leader George Mitchell and Minority Leader Bob Dole have to conclude such things as who will conduct the hearings, what kind of format to use, and who will testify. However, the fundamental plan on the hearings was spelled out in the Senate decision.
[Meanwhile, Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman's disclosure of a second meeting on the Whitewater case with a senior White House aide is prompting a call for his resignation by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, the loudest critic in Congress on Whitewater.]