You have to admire the White House spin doctors. They’re good. When they see themselves cornered by the facts, they simply change the subject — refocus the debate, answer questions that aren’t being asked, raise other issues with which they feel more comfortable.

A perfect example is the new White House line on China’s influence in the 1996 U.S. elections that emerged in a front-page story in the Washington Post yesterday.

“President Clinton and his senior foreign policy advisers disagree with senators of both parties who have concluded China had a plan to influence U.S. elections illegally, according to administration officials, who said high-level White House discussions last week reaffirmed there is so far no cause for taking punitive steps against Beijing,” the story began.

First of all, this is a strange new position for the White House to be taking. Remember Clinton’s first statements about the possibility Chinese money may have been funneled into campaigns? He said it would be a very serious matter and raise grave questions. Now, as the evidence for such involvement becomes more clear and compelling, the administration is backtracking. The new line is that Beijing should get the benefit of the doubt.

Why is the position changing? Because the FBI has electronic intercepts of conversations between government officials in Beijing and officials at the Chinese Embassy in Washington as early as 1995 calling for more than $2 million to be channeled into U.S. campaigns.

Though the Clinton administration can and will deny the undeniable when cornered, the new position is designed to give the president a little more wiggle room — to stall, to obfuscate, to keep the investigation from gaining momentum.

With the investigation in such an early stage, why is the administration drawing conclusions? Why isn’t it urging full disclosure of the facts? Why isn’t it committing all the resources necessary to getting to the bottom of what might be the biggest election scandal in the history of the nation — the selling out of vital national interests to a hostile foreign power? Why isn’t the administration calling for all of its top officials and employees, as well as those of the Democratic National Committee, to cooperate fully with this bipartisan probe?

But there’s even more here in this subtle soft-shoe shuffle worth noting. The key issue for Americans ought to be what U.S. politicians and elected officials did — not what the Chinese did.

Just last week the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate overwhelmingly opposed an attempt to amend approval of most-favored-nation status for China. Rightly or wrongly. there is no hue and cry for sanctions against China because of its role in the U.S. elections. That’s not where the debate is today. Currently, it’s still about the role of the DNC and the White House in soliciting and accepting illegal campaign contributions from individuals and companies closely associated with the Communist Chinese government.

And that’s where the debate ought to stay until all the facts are on the table. After all, is there any reasonable person who doubts, even for one minute, that the unscrupulous tyrants in Beijing would have any reservations about buying influence in U.S. foreign policy if they had the chance? Of course not. This is the same government that reminded us only a year ago that their intercontinental ballistic missiles are capable of reaching Los Angeles. This is the same government that oppresses 1 billion of its own people in unspeakable ways. This is the same government that continues to rape Tibet, to threaten Taiwan and to support international terrorism. Is there any doubt that they would resort to using a few million dollars to buy off American politicians? Relatively speaking, it would be one of the least egregious sins China has committed.

No, that’s not the issue. What Americans need to focus on is not Chinese intent — not even Chinese actions. We need to question the intent and actions of Americans who solicited and accepted this blood money.

Let’s judge China on its horrendous human rights record. Let’s judge it on its inhumane family planning policy. Let’s judge it on its military buildup. Let’s judge it on any number of other ominous trends.

But let’s first judge Americans on their loyalty to the ideals and laws of their own country. That’s the real issue. And that’s where the White House sees its own vulnerability.

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