Trouble awaits Clinton at home Allegations of role in fund-raising abuses compound his woes

September 04, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For 24 minutes yesterday, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a leading Democratic voice in Congress and longtime political comrade of Bill Clinton, stood on the Senate floor and condemned the president's conduct in the Monica Lewinsky matter as "immoral," "disgraceful" and deserving of public rebuke.

Lieberman's televised speech, which the White House fears could open the door to a stream of public criticisms by Democrats, was the latest in a seemingly endless drumbeat of bad news for Clinton this week.

Presidents often turn to foreign travel to try to escape, or at least move the spotlight away from, their troubles at home.

But while he has been overseas this week, Clinton's personal problems have not only stuck to him; they have multiplied.

The president returns to Washington tomorrow from his week-long trip to Russia, Northern Ireland and Ireland to find new legal and scandal-related problems confronting him from all directions, some of them with potentially grave consequences.

From Lieberman's stinging rebuke to a new Justice Department investigation of the president's possible involvement in campaign finance abuses, the new developments threaten to further weaken Clinton's presidency and make it harder for him to regain his footing.

"Whether he's reached the stage of being debilitated is a question, but he's obviously very distracted," says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Indeed, Clinton faces a struggle as he tries to move beyond the personal troubles that have dogged him in recent weeks, especially now as Washington braces for the expected report to Congress by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Since his Aug. 17 confession that he misled the nation when he denied having had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, the president has been unable to shake the scandal or the air of uncertainty that surrounds him -- even as he has dealt with serious international crises.

But since polls continue to show a high public approval rating for his job as president -- if not for his personal behavior -- those close to Clinton believe his best chance for survival is to focus relentlessly on policy issues meaningful to the American public.

"I think the best course of action for him is to let the lawyers take care of the legal problems and for him to focus on the big issues of the day," says Robert Shrum, a Democratic strategist who has at times advised the president.

"I don't think he should let this be the national conversation. He should get on the really big issues and do them over and over again every day."

Shrum says Clinton has a brief "window of time" before Starr issues his report to Congress, probably this fall, in which to divert attention away from his legal and personal troubles and toward such issues as a patient bill of rights, Social Security and campaign finance reform.

"If he really focuses on the big issues, the people will focus on them," Shrum says. "The last thing we need is a series of apologies, semi-apologies and explanations."

In fact, Clinton's strategy upon returning to Washington is to "get back to work," says Ann Lewis, the White House communications director. "The single most important thing we can do is get about real work. The key here is leadership on issues people care about, and bringing the news as close to home as we can. That's what people expect of him, and that's what they're going to see."

To that end, Lewis says, the president will focus on schools first thing next week, traveling on Tuesday with Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, to a Montgomery County trailer classroom to discuss school modernization.

Later in the week, Clinton will appear at other education-related events, honoring math and science teachers and focusing on technology in the classroom.

"In September, going back to school is the closest thing we have to a national experience," Lewis said.

But some believe that the culture of scandal has become the nation's shared experience these days and are dubious that the president can be effective with the walls caving in around him, as they seem to be. Clinton returns home this weekend to find:

Attorney General Janet Reno has begun a preliminary review into whether the president was personally involved in campaign finance abuses during the 1996 presidential election. She has until the middle of the next week to decide whether to begin a 90-day inquiry in the matter, a step that could lead to the appointment of another independent counsel to look into the president's own actions.

Recently, Reno has begun two other Justice Department inquiries into whether Vice President Al Gore and Harold Ickes, a former White House deputy chief of staff, violated campaign finance laws and should therefore be investigated by independent counsels.

If the Clinton inquiry results in the appointment of a special prosecutor, "It could be very complicated, very messy and very serious," says Hess, of the Brookings Institution.

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