WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush is hanging tough and not giving an inch on growing Democratic demands to open the records on the energy giant Enron and its links with his administration. His strategy may contain the scandal in the short term, but possibly at the cost of seeing it explode a year or more down the road with incalculably greater impact.
Bush refused Thursday to reveal the White House's contacts with the failed energy-trading corporation whose collapse was the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, wrote to Vice President Dick Cheney last Wednesday urging him to turn over records to the committee detailing which Enron representatives he met with last year when he was crafting the new national energy strategy in secret.
It is already a matter of public record that Enron was the largest single corporate contributor to Bush's election campaign last year. And Waxman in his letter to Cheney listed no less than 17 examples of major planks in the administration's energy plan that were effectively identical with policies Enron had urged, all of which were clearly designed to benefit it.
Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer, like the loyal team player he is, rejected Waxman's call to release the records the following day, calling it "a partisan waste of taxpayer money."
Fleischer's statement was totally consistent with the White House strategy on Enron ever since the scandal broke last month. Hang tough, admit nothing and distance the president, not frantically but subtly, away from any close association to the bankrupt energy giant.
The last thing the president wants to do now is to open the gates to a muckraking, sensation-seeking congressional probe. He has no problem heading that off in the House of Representatives, where his Republican Party still holds a wafer-thin five-seat majority. That means Waxman will not get his chance to grandstand on the issue and tilt populist windmills at the administration over it.
But were Bush at all introspective -- and there has never been the slightest sign that he is -- he would be kicking himself for allowing former Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords of Maine to defect from the GOP last year.
Jeffords' decision to re-designate himself as an independent threw control of the Senate to the Democrats. That has now allowed last year's Democratic vice presidential candidate and 2004 presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to launch his own series of hearings into the Enron collapse in that chamber.
Still, even if Lieberman wants to transform himself into an angry hound-dog, he has three decades of carefully-crafted self-conditioning as a dignified, "thoughtful" moderate holding him back.
Throughout his career, even on the national ticket last year, Lieberman has never shown as much charisma as a dose of Valium. The White House may even hope that he will inadvertently bore the American public to despair, the more he goes on about Enron. That would suit 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. just fine.
Waxman's inability to put Enron on the agenda in the House in any significant way, and Lieberman's personal inability to actually ride the issue when it does come up in the Senate, mean the Bush strategy may well work in the short term. But they could pay a fearsome political price for it.
If the recession fails to end or improve significantly in the next nine or 10 months, then the economy could well become the dominant issue in the midterm elections, even if Osama bin Laden is killed by then and no further terrorist attack occurs.
If the recession continues and further major attacks on the scale of the destruction of the World Trade Center do occur, then they are likely to see the president's strong, long honeymoon with the voters finally end, abruptly and traumatically.
In either event, Enron is likely to remain as a festering wound in the side of the administration and the GOP, without a sense of closure or of justice being enacted against its perpetrators. Only if strong economic recovery comes -- as the president is betting that it will -- can the Enron boil be lanced by November this year.
But suppose recovery does not come. Then it will not take much of a swing at all to tilt control of the House back to the Democrats for the first time in eight years. That is especially the case as the Northeast regional state and mayoral elections late last year showed that the president's immense personal popularity and prestige as a war leader did not translate into any domestic political coattails that could help his beleaguered supporters on the home front.
And if the Democrats regain the House, they will come back truly spoiling for a fight. Waxman and his colleagues will be furious because the president stonewalled them so effectively on Enron now. And it will also be payback time for the House drive in 1998 to impeach President Bill Clinton over his initial cover-up of the Monica Lewinsky affair.
That is not to say that Bush can expect to face impeachment proceedings from a Democrat-dominated House. But he can certainly expect it to loose the dogs of political war against himself and his colleagues on Enron. It will be payback time writ large.
Even worse, a Democrat-dominated House in 2003 will be seeking to rip open political wounds in the administration as the 2004 presidential cycle heats up.
If all the documents on Enron were exposed now and the dirty linen aired in public, the issue would be ancient history by the time the 2004 race got under way. But if the House Democrats only start to get their teeth into the Bush team's dealings with Enron in spring next year, with the presidential election only a year and half away, any dirt they dig up will still be potent political ammo as the campaigns hit high gear.
Enron's executives believed that the longer they could cover up their own scandals, the greater the chance that something would turn up to save them. Instead, they only made their own ruin inevitable. By stonewalling on his team's dealings with Enron, Bush is practicing the same strategy, and running the same risk.