For Clinton, a chance to mend legacy

But overcoming stigma of impeachment might be nearly impossible

GOP could be biggest loser

Post-trial bitterness likely to impede work on ambitious agenda

February 14, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With his personal reputation in tatters but his political power still potent, Bill Clinton will have just two years to burnish his legacy and try to banish Monica Lewinsky to a footnote in his presidency.

From Gennifer Flowers to the second presidential impeachment trial in history, Clinton has proved himself to be a political escape artist without parallel. But even for the self-described "Comeback Kid," the mission ahead may be next to impossible.

The peace and prosperity that helped him weather the scandal have left the president without the kind of adversity that would allow him to be truly heroic.

And, despite Clinton's vow to work with his Republican adversaries, the political demands of his Democratic allies -- coupled with lingering resentments and distrust -- could make progress on the nation's most pressing problems unlikely.

Those doubts were amply illustrated when Clinton adviser James Carville hinted that he wanted to bury the hatchet in someone's back, then stopped himself.

Burying the hatchet is "a good idea for most people. It's good for the president. It's good for the speaker. It's just not good for people like me," fumed Carville.

"I'm going to bury the hatchet in a whole lot of people's faces, not their backs, their faces."

The Lewinsky affair and impeachment saga "will always be there," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"Some will see it as a permanent stain on the presidency. Others will see the Clinton presidency as a missed opportunity, that Bill Clinton could have accomplished so much if he had not been consumed by this sex scandal."

Voter contempt for Clinton's impeachment will undoubtedly work in the president's favor, at least in the short run.

In his budget and his State of the Union address, Clinton laid out an aggressive agenda for a president in his sixth year in office, including ensuring the continued solvency of Social Security and Medicare, linking federal education aid to school and teacher performance, and providing tax credits for long-term health care, the working disabled and stay-at-home parents.

Clinton extended a hand to GOP leaders who worked hard for his ouster, but by outlining relatively specific proposals, he also set a high bar for those Republicans to leap over if they want bipartisan deals on his agenda. That has raised Democratic hopes that he will not be quick to compromise.

If he holds firm, any legislative accomplishments can be framed as Democratic victories -- while defeats can be be attributed to GOP partisanship.

"If people are willing to join us despite how they have voted [on impeachment and conviction], we'll welcome them," said Douglas Sosnik, a senior White House adviser. "But this is our agenda. It's no secret."

Republicans find themselves in dire straits. The GOP is identified as the party of impeachment, without a discernible agenda, unpopular with the public and divided internally.

To overcome those negatives, the GOP's largely untested and unknown leaders hope to pass a flurry of legislation to prove that they can govern in post-impeachment Washington.

But Republicans are not sure what legislation they want to pass.

Economic conservatives want a 10 percent, across-the-board cut in income tax rates funded by the federal budget surplus. Social conservatives demand an end to the "marriage penalty," which taxes some married couples at higher rates than singles.

And Republican moderates have proposed less expensive targeted tax cuts more in line with Clinton's own proposals.

Worse still, a House GOP aide conceded, internal Republican polls are detecting no voter enthusiasm for broad tax cuts.

Poised to exploit

The White House is eager to exploit the vacuum.

"Republicans have the obligation to show they can govern. That's their burden," Sosnik said. "They also have an obligation to show they stand for something."

And Republicans may have to comply. In the absence of a united agenda, aides admit that the GOP has little choice but to embrace many of Clinton's proposals, including subsidies for school construction, stricter standards for managed care companies, tax breaks for long-term health care costs, and increased funding for elementary and secondary education.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico has already vowed that Republicans will not let Clinton outdo them on education spending.

"The ultimate paradox in all this is that having been thoroughly embarrassed by the impeachment process, the political center is once again defined by Bill Clinton," said Donald Kettl, director of the LaFollette Center for Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin. "It's remarkable in every way except that it's completely consistent with Bill Clinton's career."

In some cases, the president has helped Republicans by moving toward their positions, for instance on deploying a national missile defense system and increasing military spending.

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