Clinton's Awkward Situation

Dec. 21, 2004
The Brits have an answer to leadership paralysis

I know. I know. You're sick and tired of reading about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and Ken Starr and Linda Tripp and the stained dress and the whole tawdry political and personal mess. So is everybody else. Polls show that although the American public is disgusted with the President's personal behavior and for months has wanted a more contrite apology, it still strongly approves -- by an astounding 60% or more -- of his job performance. The White House mantras -- "it's only sex," "it's private," and "Ken Starr is out-of-control" -- apparently have been heard and accepted. Also if the polls are to be believed, most Americans buy the White House line that, thanks to his ability to "compartmentalize," Clinton remains on top of his job. His defenders insist that the scandal hasn't affected the inner workings of government. Don't they wish! Ride the bus and subway enough or sit long enough in bars and restaurants in and around Washington, D.C., and you'll overhear low-level bureaucrats grouse about how decisions and policy initiatives are in limbo because of lack of guidance from a distracted White House. Congressional staff aides talk freely of policy inertia caused by the scandal. So, privately, do Administration policymakers. One senior official, for example, acknowledges to IW on a not-for-attribution basis that Clinton's weakness on Capitol Hill is one reason the White House hasn't pressed for "fast-track" trade-negotiating authority to which it once gave high priority. Common sense, in fact, tells you that the Lewinski Scandal is taking a toll on the Administration's effectiveness. Would Saddam Hussein, for example, have dared to kick United Nations nuclear weapons inspectors out of Iraq if he didn't think Clinton were weakened and had other things on his mind? Would terrorists have been emboldened to bomb U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam? (For that matter, were Clinton's retaliatory missile attacks in Sudan and Afghanistan a scandal-related Wag the Dog response?) If Clinton were stronger, would the stock market swoon be so severe? Would the U.S. be more forceful in combating the Russian and Asian economic crises? Such questions, of course, are unanswerable. Much easier to gauge is the activity, or the lack of it, in the closing weeks of the 105th Congress -- especially in several legislative areas of keen interest to industry. Take taxes. Just before Congress began its new session, and before most people had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky, it appeared likely that significant tax legislation would be enacted this year. But now, because of the scandal, only a token bill seems in the cards. "A large tax bill requires more negotiating -- and that takes the President's time" explains Monica McGuire, tax lobbyist for the National Assn. of Manufacturers (who emphasizes that her last name "is McGuire, not Lewinsky"). Other examples abound. If Clinton were stronger and more engaged, not only would the outlook for fast-track legislation would be more favorable, but so would be the prospects for an economic-development-related bill sought by industry -- replenishment money for the International Monetary Fund. So, too, would such Clinton initiatives as HMO, education, and Social Security reform. No, it's not business as usual in the Clinton White House, no matter how many photo ops are contrived showing the President hard at work attending to the nation's business. The President is clearly weakened, and the effect trickles down throughout the bureaucracy. It's an awkward situation. And now that the House of representatives has recieved Independent Counsel Ken Starr's report on the President's conduct, it won't be business as usual on Capitol Hill either. Consideration of the report will consume vast amounts of time -- and not just for the members of the House Judiciary Committee. For all their other differences, members of Congress are united on one matter: Alleged misconduct in office must be taken seriously, and particularly so when the subject of investigation is the President of the United States. As a whole, Congress now seems disinclined to impeach, try, and convict Clinton. And Clinton is disinclined to resign. That could change. But even if Clinton, the "Comeback Kid," survives, chances are he'd be politically paralyzed for the remaining two years of his presidency. This is one time that the parliamentary system of government has much to recommend it. If Clinton were prime minister of Great Britain, for example, and felt strongly that the public truly was buying the "it's-only-sex" argument and wanted closure to the matter, he could call a new election. If his party won -- and with his 60% job- approval rating his chances might be good -- his Presidency would be regenerated. If it lost, a new Republican-led Administration would come into power, and that would be that. Again if this were Britain, the Republican opposition could call for a vote of no confidence. The outcome would either give Clinton a fresh start or bounce him from office. Either way, the tawdry mess would have a quick ending. The nation could get on with its business

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