Enron as Metaphor

"Enron has the potential to shape the entire political environment for 2002," advises a strategy memo making the rounds of Washington Democrats. Enron Corp. could be the political issue of the Democrats' dreams—if they remember to speak metaphorically.

The problem is, there's a war on. President Bush is enjoying extraordinary public support. And so far, there's no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bush Administration. Democrats don't want to be seen as exploiting the Enron issue for partisan advantage. "I don't think that anyone should go into this inquiry with politics in mind," cautioned House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo. His Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., agreed: "The last thing we should do is politicize this scandal."

It's the same dilemma Republicans have with the war. Last month, Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, told the Republican National Committee, "We can go to the country" on the war issue because Americans "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might." Democrats cried foul. Rove was trying to turn the war on terrorism into a partisan issue, even though Democrats have been fully supportive of the war.

Just as the war could be the GOP's best issue, Democrats think that Enron may be their best issue. But Enron is going to be tough for candidates to run on without looking divisive and hypocritical. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that 34 percent of House Democrats and 60 percent of Senate Democrats have received contributions from the giant energy company.

So what can Democrats do? Insinuate that Enron received favors from the Bush White House in return for campaign contributions. Enron "got 17 specific proposals in their energy bill," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe said, adding that Enron tried to put a "$254 million" tax break in the tax bill. Then-Enron Chairman "Ken Lay was actually involved in picking the commissioners to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission," McAuliffe said.

Democrats can hint that Enron bought off government oversight. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said, "I think people are going to wonder not whether there was criminal behavior, but whether Enron used its influence to convince the Administration to take positions on energy policy, energy regulation that may have been favorable to allowing Enron to do what it was doing."

Also, Democrats can argue that the Bush Administration should have protected Enron employees and stockholders. As Gephardt noted, "Maybe the worst thing about all this is that the Republican Administration perhaps failed to do things it might have been able to do."

Already, Democrats are running campaign ads linking GOP candidates to Enron. One commercial airing in North Carolina criticizes Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole for attending "a secret fundraiser hosted by Kenneth Lay." The ad charges, "While Dole's campaign was publicly stating it had put its activities on hold, it was conducting fundraisers at the house of a scoundrel."

Democrats can run ads using Enron as a symbol of greed. California Gov. Gray Davis is already running such an ad against a potential Republican gubernatorial nominee, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan: "The rest of California helped L.A. rebuild after the Northridge earthquake. How did Riordan return the favor? He gouged the rest of the state, charging us twice as much as out-of-state generators. More than Enron."

Enron is still more of a business scandal than a political scandal. In a Gallup Poll taken last month, 65 percent of Americans said they thought that Enron executives did something illegal. Only 15 percent said they thought that members of the Bush Administration did something illegal.

If you can't get your opponents on actual wrongdoing, maybe you can go after them metaphorically, as Daschle did on January 24: "I think we are slowly 'Enronizing' the economy, 'Enronizing' the budget." What did he mean? "We are taking money from Social Security, taking money from Medicare, and putting it in the form of tax cuts to those who are at the very top of the income scale." Daschle called it "the same approach Enron used in sapping retirement funds and providing [the money] to those at the very top."

Enron economics! Meaning: fiscally irresponsible policies that favor big shots but hurt working people and retirees. That's a killer metaphor. "Enron will do us damage as metaphor," Doonesbury had the President saying on January 31. "It makes us look like we're all in bed with business."

Republicans called Daschle's comments out-of-bounds. Mary Matalin, counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, railed about Daschle "trying to make a verb out of Enron ... support Bush on the war and 'Enronize' him on other issues." She warned, "That is a big mistake."

The fact is, metaphors can kill you politically. Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale finished off Gary Hart in 1984 by asking him a metaphorical question: "Where's the beef?" And remember back in 1992, when the first President Bush seemed unfamiliar with a supermarket price scanner? That became a metaphor for how out of touch he was with ordinary Americans.

This President Bush may survive Enron, the scandal. But he'd better watch out for Enron, the metaphor.