Speech can't divert scrutiny Key Clinton audience was Hill Democrats

January 28, 1998|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The first imperative for any politician in trouble is always the same: Change the subject. But it is unlikely that President Clinton managed to do that with his State of the Union address last night.

The speech was loaded with crowd-pleasing proposals for the future and well-founded claims of success for Clinton's first five years in the White House. It was delivered at a time the president could report, as he did, that "the state of our union is strong." And the preceding seven days of white-hot controversy over Monica Lewinsky assured Clinton of a larger and more attentive audience than these speeches have attracted in recent years as Americans have turned away from politics in droves.

But Clinton already was enjoying strong approval -- in the 55 percent to 60 percent range -- for his job performance, even in the face of accusations of tawdry and perhaps illegal behavior in his personal life. That finding, poll-takers say, has fluttered up and down only within a narrow range in the past week.

In the long run, nonetheless, Clinton's future rests far more heavily on how Americans and his fellow Democrats view him personally, a standard by which he has never been correspondingly strong.

As one Democratic professional put it privately, "Everybody thinks he's been shading the truth for a long time."

The president did not -- as a practical matter, probably could not -- address doubts about his personal conduct in an address that is supposed to be a report on the condition of the Republic rather than a discussion of what constitutes a "relationship."

"I think it was good for him he had this speech tonight," said Ed Goeas, a Republican campaign consultant. "He could focus on what he's going to do because that's where he wants people to focus."

Audience that mattered

Although the speech was beamed at a television audience that some experts said might reach 120 million, Clinton was talking most directly to the Democrats in Congress whose support is critical for his legislative program and, more to the point, potentially critical in saving his presidency if the scandal reaches that point.

These are politicians, moreover, with whom Clinton does not have a huge reservoir of good will, despite the predictably warm reception he was given at the Capitol, because many of them believe he has been too ready to move toward the ideological center.

With a few conspicuous exceptions such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Democrats in Congress have been restrained in offering any declarations of support for their president. The cliche of the week has been that Clinton is entitled to "the benefit of the doubt" in the Lewinsky affair.

Risk for party

The Democrats' concern is that the flow of political mud from the White House eventually will begin to dirty the party as a whole, just as the Watergate scandal eventually sullied the Republicans so thoroughly they suffered heavy losses in the 1974 congressional elections and then lost the White House two years later. "Right now," said Linda DiVall, a Republican polling expert, "this is only a Clinton scandal."

Clinton's attempt to focus the voters on policies and programs is another element of a multifaceted strategy on which the White House has embarked to save his presidency.

The first was his flat-out denial Monday of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, the 24-year-old former White House intern. And the second is an energetic insistence from Clinton surrogates that the charges against him are part of what Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday called "a vast right-wing conspiracy" to destroy him.

Some consultants in a position to know said the speech clearly reflected the findings of polls that have been taken for the White House over the past three days -- surveys that suggest voters lTC across the country are more willing than Washington to withhold judgment on Clinton and on whether the scandal is serious enough to threaten his presidency.

As Mark Mellman, a Democratic consultant, put it, "The public is nowhere near where the political community is" in terms of the raging debate here these days about whether Clinton might be impeached or forced to resign.

Playing to strength

So, for the president, the State of Union address was an opportunity to play to his strength and try to ignore the menacing political clouds of the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit and the special prosecutor's grand jury.

The theory is that voters will be more interested in Social Security and child care than in why Vernon Jordan tried to find a job for Monica Lewinsky.

The usual pattern, however, is for judgments within the political community to ripple out across the country.

That pattern was evident not just in the Watergate scandal but in other cases in which opinion gradually turned as the evidence accumulated. That happened, for example, in 1992 when voters decided that President George Bush was out of touch with their economic concerns.

So the jury is still out on Bill Clinton. In the end, the verdict will depend on what we find out about the Lewinsky episode long after this speech is forgotten.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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