Clintons can't afford to lose their cool now



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton wants the Republicans to know that his tirade against them in Boston the other night was no mere angry outburst, but "deliberate" on his part. In charging their party with being "committed to a politics of personal destruction," he told a New Hampshire audience the next morning, "I wanted to tell those people how I felt."

Clinton accused the Republicans of ducking the nation's "profound problems," calling the GOP "an opposition party that just stands up and says 'No' " -- he said the word nine times -- and would "rather take off after" first lady Hillary Clinton.

The cause of the outburst, obviously, is the Republicans' drumbeat demand for congressional hearings on the involvement of the president and his wife in the Whitewater affair. It has grown louder in spite of his insistence that he is turning over all relevant material to the Justice Department's special investigator in the case, and has signaled that he wants all White House staffers to cooperate fully.

The remarks may have been deliberate, but they clearly convey an emotional unraveling that is infecting other Democratic leaders as well -- notably Hillary Clinton herself and Democratic national chairman David Wilhelm.

The first lady recently labeled the attention to Whitewater "a well-organized and well-financed attempt to undermine my husband, and by extension myself, by people who have a different political agenda or have another personal and financial reason for attacking us."

Wilhelm last weekend at a national committee meeting in Cleveland charged the Republicans with "wallowing in whatever sleaze and mud they can create," preferring to "see the country fail than Bill Clinton succeed." In unusually strident, personal references, the party chairman singled out three GOP senators, saying: "Being attacked on ethics by Al D'Amato is like being called ugly by a frog. Being accused of ethics violations by Phil Gramm is like being called low by a snake. Being attacked on ethics by Bob Dole is like being called a tax cheat by Leona Helmsley."

This latter harangue was too much for the Democratic leaders in Congress. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who has had a smooth working relationship with Dole, the Senate minority leader, said Wilhelm's remarks did not "contribute to the dialogue." House Speaker Tom Foley said he did not "agree with any characterization of Bob Dole that doesn't hold him to the highest esteem."

Mitchell and Foley know all too well that with some Democrats disenchanted with key elements in the president's health care reform package, the administration is going to need Republican votes to enact any significant compromise plan this year. Mitchell particularly knows that there are a number of moderate GOP senators who want a health care bill, and that assailing the character of the Republicans -- particularly the Senate minority leader -- is not the way to encourage bipartisanship.

While it is clearly evident that some Republicans like the flamboyant D'Amato are hoping to turn Whitewater into a raging flood that will engulf the Clinton presidency, it is quite a jump to assume that the demand for more light on the controversial Arkansas land development deal to which the Clintons were parties is no more than an attempt to knock out health care reform.

Presidents often are given to believing that their way is the only right way, and that anyone who disagrees with them, and says "No" -- even once -- must have a dishonorable motive.

But Clinton as an artful practitioner of political compromise should know better. If his outburst was the result of personal pique and frustration, it would be easier to accept than his insistence that he was deliberately taking on the opposition party -- a party that last year bailed him out on the North American Free Trade Agreement when enough Democrats turned against him to scuttle it.

The Clintons have confessed to having lost their shirts in the Whitewater deal. Losing their cool could in the long run be more damaging to them, and their political goals.

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