Corporate Woes Could Be Liability for GOP ; Democrats Try to Capitalize on Problems of WorldCom and Economy. but Can They?

Article excerpt

For a few weeks there, it seemed as if America - especially its political leaders - had forgotten about the country's economic woes.

The talk in Washington was about the "inevitability" of another terrorist attack, the shortcomings of its intelligence agencies, and the president's proposal for the new Department of Homeland Security. Not surprisingly, terrorism reappeared as Americans' No. 1 concern.

But along came telecommunications giant WorldCom and its misplaced $4 billion. Suddenly, Washington is snapping to attention. President Bush is planning a major address on corporate responsibility when he visits Wall Street July 9. Congress is wearing a familiar expression of studied concern, with the House holding hearings on WorldCom July 8, and the Senate taking up accounting-reform legislation when lawmakers return from the Independence Day holiday.

Behind much of the attentiveness, though, lies a fundamental political calculation: The Democrats believe they finally have an issue they can use against a popular president, while the White House is trying to get out front on a subject that could pose serious problems for the GOP - particularly if other economic problems deepen.

"The perfect storm comes when you have a sagging economy, a burgeoning deficit, and plummeting investor and consumer confidence," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Hudson Institute here. We have indications of all three, though not yet at gale force intensity, and that does not bode well for the Bush administration or Republicans in this fall's congressional elections, he says.

Pinning blame on the GOP

Indeed, a new strategy memo by the Democratic group Democracy Corps argues: "Voters are very ready to believe that the Republicans have given free rein to an ethos that rewards irresponsible behavior by the powerful, at the expense of employees and ordinary investors."

Already, candidates across the country have been scrambling to address the issue in their campaigns. Out in the heartland, Iowa congressional hopeful John Norris faulted his opponent, GOP Rep. Tom Latham for inaction and proposed a "corporate accountability" plan of his own.

On the offensive, President Bush has spoken forcefully of the need for corporate responsibility since the WorldCom news broke last week. At the same time, he has sought to reassure Americans that most business leaders are honest and that the country's economic fundamentals are sound. In his radio address Saturday he emphasized that executives guilty of fraud "will do jail time."

Recent opinion polls show that Americans' concern about the economy is just as strong as the terrorism issue. According to the new bipartisan Battleground poll, the economy and jobs essentially tied with terrorism as the top concern among voters. …