A crippled President Clinton struggles to lead the nation

October 12, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The most serious problem confronting the '' federal government these days is unquestionably the need to reform and protect the Social Security system. Although not an issue with the emotional content of civil rights or the War in Vietnam, it is the most significant facing this generation of American politicians.

But a reform can be accomplished only through a delicate negotiation between President Clinton and the Republican leaders of Congress. And the opening of the investigation that could lead to Mr. Clinton's impeachment wipes away any chance of such a negotiation in the foreseeable future.

In other words, in terms of the president's ability to function, the damage from the Monica Lewinsky affair already has been done -- and it is enormous.

The Republicans may argue with obvious validity that it has been Mr. Clinton who has destroyed his effectiveness in dealing with Congress. Months of lying about Ms. Lewinsky has left his credibility in tatters.

But it is also valid to argue that the partisan tone the Republicans have taken in pursuing the preliminaries to impeachment has compromised any chance of the kind of trust required in dealing with Social Security. As both sides have learned, it is an issue of the greatest political sensitivity.

The president is trying to put up a good front. Every evening the network news programs show him dealing with serious matters of domestic and foreign policy and ostensibly ignoring the impeachment threat he says is beyond his ability to influence.

And Mr. Clinton has shown himself in the past to be a tenacious survivor, so it would be imprudent to say he cannot recover from his weakened position today at some point over the last two years of his service -- assuming, of course, that the impeachment is not voted or, if it is, that the Senate refuses to agree.

It is also true that the Republicans have shown a penchant in the past for overplaying their hand and losing popular support by going to extremes.

Everyone on both sides remembers how the electorate reacted to the shutdown of the government three years ago.

So it is reasonable to say that Mr. Clinton's ability to govern depends on how the impeachment story unfolds over the weeks and months ahead. But one thing that is already clear is that this process will carry well into the coming year, despite the ambitious timetable put forward by Chairman Henry Hyde of the House Judiciary Committee.

If the House eventually decides that Mr. Clinton's behavior does not qualify as a high crime or misdemeanor demanding impeachment, it is possible the president could put the whole thing behind him by sometime in the spring. But that would leave two critical questions to be answered.

First, can the impeachment question be answered without such a hardening of partisan lines that any cooperation between the president and Congress is impossible? It cannot be forgotten that this whole drama will be playing out just as the 2000 presidential campaign begins.

Second, can the president rebuild a healthy political relationship with his own party? Although most Democrats sided with Mr. Clinton in the impeachment vote, many of them did so despite their distrust of the president and anger at the behavior that put them into such an awkward position.

None of these questions about the president's future can be answered, of course, until the preliminary investigation of the Judiciary Committee has been conducted. If we find that Mr. Clinton's only culpability already has been established by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, the president may be able to ride out the whole thing. If, on the other hand, there are new disclosures of smelly behavior by the president, Mr. Clinton still might be removed from office.

What is already apparent, nonetheless, is that the president's ability to function as our national leader has been seriously, perhaps fatally compromised.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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