Partisan Taint

WITH a defeat on the crime bill last week and health care on the ropes, the White House seems especially vulnerable as midterm elections come up this fall.

As we noted Friday, much blame is due to disarray and lack of focus in the White House itself. Each week brings a different personnel shift; for a chief executive as media-conscious as President Clinton is, weeks of Whitewater hearings must only compound the problem. New chief of staff Leon Panetta needs to provide stability.

Yet after the crime bill fiasco and recent developments on Whitewater, the problem of partisanship must be mentioned; that is, the Republican attack on a White House perceived to be weak. Washington politics is, of course, a contact sport. There is little use in offering a lesson about nice behavior here. Yet both sides must remember it is the voters, the American people, whom they serve, and that the game must be played responsibly, however vigorously. The national interest can be harmed if the presidency is weakened, civil discourse soured, and voters made more cynical.

Sadly, the party-line GOP rhetoric and vote on the crime bill suggest that the real issue now is not crime but the November elections. The crime bill was not perfect. Yet Americans want action in this arena, and the compromise plan was decent. We hope the defeat can be reversed. The example of the mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, deserves attention: Mr. Giuliani went on the road with Mr. Clinton over the weekend to fight for a new crime bill.

House minority whip Newt Gingrich, who has perfected the art of partisanship, now criticizes the crime bill as too much pork for big cities. Such rhetoric may play well to suburban middle-class America and the listeners of radio talk-shows. Yet the law needs to address crime where it happens. Besides, most of the programs Mr. Gingrich and Sen. Bob Dole complain about were in the Republican version of the bill. The criticism seems irresponsible.

Finally, the manner in which the Whitewater investigation will be prolonged took another turn when it was discovered that the head of the panel of judges that appointed former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr had lunch with staunch Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina in the middle of the appointment process. These tactics seem transparent; that such lunches take place in what is supposed to be an independent process smacks of dangerous partisanship.

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