Born-Again Bipartisanship

Here's a dictionary entry straight out of Ambrose Bierce: bipartisan politician--a Democrat who's afraid of being indicted.

Stirrings in the Justice Department have led some observers to predict that indictments are forthcoming against two 18-year Democratic veterans of Congress. In the Senate, New Jersey's Robert Torricelli has reportedly been under scrutiny for possible fundraising improprieties during his 1996 election campaign [see Art Levine, "The Amazing Adventures of Money Man," TAP, April 24, 2000]. And in the House of Representatives, the inimitable Jim Traficant of Youngstown, Ohio, may have to answer to a litany of charges ranging from tax evasion to bribery and racketeering.

This puts the recent behavior of these two legislators in an interesting light. Traficant, who has adopted a "go-ahead-and-indict-me" stance (he long ago endeared himself to conservatives by calling Attorney General Janet Reno a "traitor" and implying that she is a lesbian drunk) made an egregious breach of party protocol on January 3, when he cast the sole Democratic vote for Republican Dennis Hastert as Speaker of the House. Democrats applauded sarcastically at this brazen show of disloyalty, and spokesmen for Democratic Party leaders said that Traficant's future in the party is all but over. He will be denied any committee assignments and may be banned from the Democratic caucus.

Traficant shrugs. He'll look to the GOP for assignments as an independent or have a caucus of his own "in a phone booth" somewhere. But despite this typical flash of insouciance, his show of fealty to the Republican Hastert begs a question: Is the Ohio congressman hoping to win favorable treatment from a Republican Justice Department? Traficant says he's not. "These middle-management people who stay [at the Justice Department] are going to indict me" regardless of which party controls the White House, he said recently on the cable TV talk show Hannity and Colmes.

Torricelli, meanwhile, has Beltway gossipmongers atwitter. Generally known as a fierce partisan warrior (he led the Democrats effort to recapture the Senate in 2000), the Torch has been strangely conciliatory in the weeks since it first looked as if George W. Bush might win the presidential election. Torricelli was the first prominent elected Democrat to say that Al Gore should concede. And after the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount, the New Jersey senator flabbergasted colleagues by praising the justices for their integrity, singling out archconservative Justice Antonin Scalia--the principal architect of the Court's decision--for praise. Finally, he enraged liberals by initially coming out strongly in favor of Bush's nomination for attorney general, the hard-right social conservative John Ashcroft. Party members in New Jersey and Washington began to murmur amongst themselves: Was the erstwhile head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee trying to curry favor with the new administration-- and with the presumptive new attorney general--with an eye on possible legal troubles ahead?

When a New York Times reporter asked him about this, Torricelli firmly retorted that he didn't need to apologize for "not being ideologically predictable" and that calls for him to abstain from voting on Ashcroft's nomination were absurd: "If every member of the U.S. Senate who had a minor campaign finance violation investigated by the ... Justice Department had to recuse themselves from voting on federal nominations, there would be very few senators voting." But in the days after the Times article appeared on January 5, Torricelli tempered his support of Ashcroft. This naturally led some skeptical Democrats to speculate that maybe he realized he'd been too obviously craven in his overtures to Republicans and that he'd better cover himself.

Of course, rumors of imminent indictments have swirled around these men for years--in Traficant's case, decades--without materializing. Still, given that Traficant has publicly announced numerous times that he expects to be indicted by a federal grand jury on corruption charges--and that a number of his former associates and deputies, including his horse trainer, have been indicted over the last few months--it's a safe bet he'll be spending time inside of a courtroom before long. And while it's less likely that Torricelli will suffer the same fate (he's thus far demonstrated a Teflon resistance to the controversy that follows him everywhere), it's no secret that he worries about the ongoing Justice Department investigation that has already targeted a half-dozen of his campaign donors.

Traficant has clearly decided he's headed either for the Republican Party or jail. (Or maybe both.) Torricelli would prefer to avoid both fates. Thus what better time to be notably, high-mindedly, attention-gettingly bipartisan?