Clinton: lame duck to golden goose

His summer display of power ranges from Kosovo to gun control

June 13, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Only four months after impeachment apparently left Bill Clinton the lamest of lame ducks, the president stands alone in Washington as the only political leader with real star power and a track record of success that has been burnished by triumph abroad and legislative victories at home.

He has prevailed in Kosovo, his most daunting foreign policy challenge; his gun control proposals have captured the public's support and thrown Congress into chaos; his brief campaign against Hollywood violence scored an early victory last week; and his seventh-year poll ratings exceed Ronald Reagan's and are on par with those of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the only other post-World War II presidents to serve two full terms.

Clinton gave Congress the back of his hand last week by going behind the Senate's back to appoint the first openly gay ambassador.

By all accounts, this lame duck is on a roll.

"He's not lame duck. He is not dead duck. His wings are not clipped, and the other party is mad about it," boasted Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Conceded GOP consultant Ed Gillespie: "He's got a little summer surge going."

The successes are piling up quickly.

Seemingly demolishing conventional wisdom, Clinton helped hold together the fractious 19-nation NATO alliance in its first major war, won a military conflict with air power alone and without an allied combat casualty, and extended the reach of U.S. military might into a sovereign nation engaged in wholesale atrocities against its people.

But it was not just Kosovo that has bolstered Clinton's stature.

The president's response to the Columbine High School tragedy produced a rarity for this White House: a legislative victory on Capitol Hill.

Clinton proposed a series of gun control measures, and the Senate adopted them after Republicans were forced to beat an embarrassing retreat.

When Republicans complained that Clinton was reacting to Columbine with a simplistic, narrow answer -- guns -- he summoned entertainment industry executives to the White House and ordered a federal investigation of the marketing of television and movie violence to children. Last week, he scored an early win, gaining a pledge from theater and video store owners to begin demanding identification from youths seeking access to R-rated films.

And when the Senate left Washington for a short Memorial Day recess, Clinton stealthily appointed James C. Hormel ambassador to Luxembourg, making the food-industry magnate the first openly gay U.S. ambassador. That set up a confrontation with Oklahoma Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe and his conservative allies, who have vowed to block all presidential appointments -- including the confirmations of Lawrence H. Summers as Treasury secretary and Richard C. Holbrooke as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations -- until Clinton promises to swear off recess appointments. And that too could work in Clinton's favor by dividing the GOP.

"I never really expected Clinton to be limping to the inauguration of the next president," said Donald Kettl, a public policy professor at the University of Wisconsin's LaFollette Institute for Public Affairs. "He's a man of too much charm and too much personal talent to let that happen."

Even some Republicans grudgingly marvel at the president's stature -- or at least his job favorability ratings, which surged to 60 percent in an April 26 ABC News poll before slipping to 57 percent last week.

At this point in Reagan's seventh year, his approval rating stood at 49 percent. Eisenhower's was 60 percent.

`Contemptible' but skilled

"A great many people still believe Bill Clinton has remarkable political skills that are applicable to his job," said Whit Ayres, a Republican political strategist in suburban Atlanta. "Even contemptible characters can have remarkable skills."

Other Republicans -- and many presidential scholars -- do not give Clinton too much credit for the flurry of good fortune that has befallen the White House. Presidential scholar Robert Dallek credited Columbine and a shift in public opinion for the president's gun control successes.

Indeed, the post-Columbine concern about the nation's moral compass could ultimately damage Clinton's popularity. After education, the nation's moral direction has become the largest concern to voters, who continue to question the president's trustworthiness, Ayres said.

Foreign affairs is always where a weakened president turns to show leadership, and even there, Dallek said, Clinton was tepid. "He is putting impeachment and scandal behind him," Dallek said, "but I wouldn't say he comes across as a particularly strong president."

Even some allies say Clinton did not lead the charge in Kosovo. Instead, he left it to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to justify military intervention in the conflict.

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