By Dan Balz and Ruth Marcus
For months, public opinion polls have sent consistent, if somewhat contradictory, messages. Many Americans believe that the president and Lewinsky had a sexual relationship that Clinton has not told the truth about. At the same time, Clinton's job approval has remained high.
The immunity agreement means the American people may hear Lewinsky's version of events, either in a report to Congress from the independent counsel or in direct testimony if Congress were to hold hearings. The question then would be whether the paradox of public opinion that has endured for six months could survive.
There were two schools of thought on this yesterday -- even among Democrats. One was that because the American people had already weighed the issue of sex, lies and the president and decided they didn't care, there would be little if any damage. The other was that if they were confronted directly with evidence that the president lied, it could produce a political earthquake. Both camps agreed that evidence amounting to obstruction of justice on Clinton's part would cause grave danger to the president.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman argued that public opinion is unlikely to change on the basis of testimony describing a sexual relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky. "I think the only people who have been waiting for this are [people in] the political community," he said. "Therefore I think it's going to have no impact on the voters. The public has reached a set of conclusions about this whole episode. Lots of people believe, rightly or wrongly, that the president had a relationship with Monica Lewinsky. . . . It will come as a surprise to relatively few people."
But a veteran Democratic strategist, who asked not to be identified, saw potential danger for the president. "Everyone seems to shrug their shoulders and say, 'Perjury is perjury, who cares?' " he said. "I think that's a Washington analysis, that no one cares. . . . I think projecting the way the public is going to feel about something that hasn't yet happened is a bit problematic. That presumes they know everything that people will hear. I don't know the facts. I haven't seen the White House logs. I haven't heard the tapes."
Adding to the uncertainty yesterday was the fact that so little is known about the precise contours of Lewinsky's story, particularly what she will have to say about the areas that appear to trouble Americans most -- obstructing justice and suborning perjury.
Another unknown is what the president will say if he consents to answer questions from Starr's prosecutors. Will Clinton repeat his sworn statements in his deposition in the Paula Jones civil lawsuit denying any relationship with Lewinsky? Will he restate his unequivocal public statement that he did not have "sexual relations with that woman"?
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said yesterday that Clinton had nothing to fear from Lewinsky's testimony. "One would presume . . . that she is going to testify truthfully and accurately," he told reporters. "So why would that pose any problem to the president?"
But if Lewinsky contradicts the president and he repeats his previous denials before the grand jury, he could open himself up to both legal and political risk, particularly if Starr presents compelling evidence supporting her version of events.
If Clinton's denial "is contradicted by all sorts of evidence and if the independent counsel decides to say to Congress that the president lied not only in his deposition but to the grand jury, Congress will feel obliged to conduct a rather thorough investigation," said George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg.
But on the other hand, changing his story at this stage could be equally perilous for the president.
"That's a pretty strong statement for him now to reverse course," said one White House adviser, who said the president needs to stick to his original account. "People assume he's lying. They also assume she's sort of off the wall. They don't want the republic torn down . . . and therefore they want to move on. If he stays with his story, the public sentiment is going to be, 'We don't believe him but we don't want him impeached.' "
The Lewinsky immunity agreement was announced as Clinton and his lawyers continued to work out the terms under which he would tell his story to Starr's investigators. Those negotiations also bring risks to the president, who having opened the door to testifying may be locked into doing so. "I don't see how they can back down [from agreeing to testify]," said Jane E. Sherburne, former White House special counsel.
The White House strategy of delay has worked to Clinton's advantage so far, but some presidential supporters say that may no longer be the case.
"There is great danger for the first time, and it is political danger," one White House defender said. "If the American people blame the White House for protracting this story, rather than Mr. Starr or the Republicans, that will hurt Clinton's popularity. They're angry, they're tired of this story and they are going to take it out on whoever they think is protracting the story. That's the reason Democrats on the Hill now appear to be anxious for him to testify."
While the immunity agreement puts the most pressure on Clinton, the accelerating investigation poses challenges for both Democrats and Republicans as they move into the campaign season. Neither party appears particularly anxious to have the matter thrust upon it, particularly before the election.
If Starr submits a report to Congress early this fall, Republican leaders will have to decide whether to move quickly to hold hearings into possible impeachment of the president or postpone action until next year -- all without knowing which course will incur the most wrath from the greatest number of voters.
"Some would love to move tomorrow, but I think it would be really dumb," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). "This process should be thoughtful and deliberative and nothing close to an election is viewed as thoughtful and deliberative, even if it is."
Democrats have even less desire to see the matter aired before the election. One top Democratic aide said he feared a Starr report would obscure any other issue Democrats could raise against the Republicans. A report also could force Democratic candidates into the uncomfortable position of defending the president against unseemly charges.
Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster who handles many congressional races, said he would encourage Democrats to avoid the investigation as much as possible and concentrate on issues of importance to their districts. "Most congressional candidates are going to spend their time talking to constituents rather than racing to the ramparts to discuss the president's strengths or weaknesses," he said.
White House advisers projected an air of nonchalance to the news of Lewinsky's immunity agreement. They are betting that the public already has had enough of the investigation and of Starr, in part because of their own effort to discredit the independent counsel.
That continued yesterday. White House aide Rahm Emanuel said the public believes Starr cares less about the evidence than about "getting the president." Starr's report, he said, "has less to do with truth and a lot more to do with Ken Starr's feelings toward the president."
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and John F. Harris contributed to this report.
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