CONASON: If Clinton Is for Sale, $35 Million Won't Do It

In all the current uproar over alleged fund raising in the White House and the supposed marketing of Presidential favors by the Democratic National Committee, nobody has mentioned that the biggest donor of them all asked for just one thing--and didn't get it. The funny part is that in disappointing his party's best friend, the President managed to make himself look worse, not better. The spurned benefactor in this story is the A.F.L.-C.I.O., whose $35 million in advertising and invaluable organizing efforts did more for the Democrats last year than any other entity by far. Actually, $35 million is the most modest reckoning of what the 1996 campaign cost labor, because that number doesn't calculate the additional amounts spent by individual unions belonging to the federation. When the Republicans whine about free-spending union bosses, as their former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour did incessantly last fall, they toss around estimates that run as high as $100 million or more. The true figure is probably closer to the low end, but that's still a lot of money. Thirty-five million dollars is always a lot of money in politics, even for a national election. All of the money raised by the D.N.C. from dubious donors in dubious ways amounts to far less in total. So you might think anyone who put up that kind of cash would be able to demand whatever they wanted with confidence, but you would be wrong. With Bill Clinton's victory secured, A.F.L.-C.I.O. president John Sweeney told the White House that he wanted to suggest one appointment in the new Cabinet. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich was resigning to return to academic life, and Mr. Sweeney made known labor's preference for Harris Wofford as his successor. A former U.S. Senator of Pennsylvania with an honorable history as one of John F. Kennedy's most principled civil rights advisers, Mr. Wofford was not only labor's choice but a highly qualified candidate. His selection would have been not only a favor to a loyal constituency but a nomination of indisputable quality. The blunt answer was No. The biggest donor's wishes were ignored, and the post was given to Alexis Herman, a longtime party operative who has been serving as an assistant to the President. While Ms. Herman did once serve in the Labor Department two decades ago as chief of its Women's Bureau, she has little record as an advocate of working people. Apparently, her most significant work in the Clinton White House was as a salesperson for the North American Free Trade Agreement, an accomplishment that scarcely endeared her to the labor movement, which regards that treaty as a job-export program. Prior to that, her resume includes a stint with the late Ron Brown at the D.N.C., where she helped put together the very well-orchestrated 1992 convention in New York City. A nice credential for something, no doubt, but not exactly what workers need in a Secretary of Labor. This is not the sort of person who will wield much influence during Administration debates over economic policy. In fact, Ms. Herman's nomination is regarded as a signal that the Labor Department will be downgraded from the active role it had while Mr. Reich -- brilliant, fearless and influential with his old friend, the President -- was in charge. The irony, of course, is that now Ms. Herman's confirmation is endangered because she reportedly participated in several Presidential kaffeeklatsches for Democratic fat cats. The same woman whose nomination infuriated the party's biggest supporter is under fire for favormongering. For Mr. Clinton, there is a certain rough justice in this situation. In a karmic sense, he has earned trouble, though not for the reasons he is getting it. The ingrate ought not to have dismissed the reasonable desire of his labor supporters so lightly. That certainly isn't to say that Ms. Herman should have to run the Republican gantlet for her activities in the White House. Her title there since 1993 has been director of the Office of Public Liaison, a position her would-be tormentors on the Senate Labor Committee very well know is and always has been completely political. The prior occupants under Republican Presidents have not exactly been nonpartisan nuns: Among them are Faith Ryan Whittlesey, who organized the contra aid campaign for Ronald Reagan; that world-beating pol Elizabeth Dole; and Linda Chavez, who was required to change her party registration to Republican before she got the job. (Their work was supervised by such impeccably apolitical virgins as Patrick Buchanan.) On the general topic of "politics in the White House," please consult last year's memoir by Ed Rollins, Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms, which provides vivid anecdotes about fund raising and campaigning on government time during the Reagan years. So the accusations against Ms. Herman are less than hair-raising. The real meaning of her nomination, at least for labor, is that in this Administration, you can give everything and receive nothing. Next time John Sweeney antes up the workers' dues, he might well demand a commitment in advance.

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