By John F. Harris
Two hours after the House of Representatives voted yesterday to begin an impeachment inquiry against him, President Clinton struck a detached, even serene note in a brief appearance before reporters.
"It is not in my hands, it is in the hands of Congress and the people of this country, ultimately in the hands of God," said Clinton, who aides said did not bother to watch any of the House debate about his future. "Personally, I am I am fine. I have surrendered this."
But Clinton's political team, whose leaders yesterday were not thinking on such a lofty philosophical plane, has surrendered nothing. And, if Clinton's fate is in the hands of God, they know that it very likely also is in the hands of voters in the Nov. 3 midterm elections.
That a day when lawmakers approved a process that could lead to the president's eviction from office could be an occasion for relief among his senior advisers is one reflection of how peculiar life has become in this White House. But Clinton's next showdown will take place on the terrain of politics and public opinion that Clinton and his aides believe will prove more favorable than the halls of Congress or a grand jury room.
After nearly nine months in which the unfolding Monica S. Lewinsky scandal seemed to make each day progressively more bizarre, the belief expressed with more hope than conviction is that life may return to something like normal for the next four weeks.
Still to be determined is how normal life can be for a president facing an impeachment inquiry. Both Democratic and Republican strategists said yesterday that each party has an interest in turning the public away from issues of presidential sex and lies, and that the midterm elections will not in the strictest sense be a referendum on Clinton's fate.
At the same time, several of his own advisers agree, Clinton's fate could hinge on the election especially if Democrats suffer a rout that is worse than the losses a president's party usually suffers in a midterm election.
"If it's a huge blowout, people are going to blame the president," said one political adviser who speaks regularly with Clinton. "But this has energized us. People are getting ready to fight this war."
"If there's a blowout, the president has two big problems," said former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, who, after a period of public criticism of his former boss, is now helping to contain damage from the scandal. "One is that he's got a new [more hostile] jury on this issue. The other is that Democrats will be very concerned about the fate of the party" with Clinton in office.
But Clinton political advisers, in the White House and outside, have grown considerably more confident in recent days that the worst-case scenarios will be averted. Just as likely as a Democratic thrashing, they said, is a backlash against Republicans for focusing unduly on personal scandal.
At a fund-raiser Wednesday night, Clinton said the election gave Democrats a chance to rise above "Washington-centered destructive politics."
"Maybe it is the irony of this terribly painful moment, which I regret very much putting you all through, that we are being given yet one more chance to affirm our better selves," Clinton said.
But there are signs that scandal is crimping Clinton's style. A president famous for his love of crowds and stump speeches has gone two months without an appearance in which the general public or even a typical Democratic activist can show up to see Clinton without receiving a special invitation or making a financial contribution.
The last two months have put Clinton at dozens of Democratic fund-raisers he's been at 92 of them in 1998 and before groups of teachers and health care specialists at smaller forums. But the last real crowd was when he stumped for health care before several thousand cheering supporters, who needed tickets to get through the door in Louisville on Aug. 10.
Panetta, who said he was encouraged by the number of Democrats who did not vote with the GOP yesterday, added, "I suspect his people are looking carefully at the events he's going to so that nothing can happen to embarrass him."
Along recent motorcade routes, protesters have put up signs calling on Clinton to resign, and pranksters have dressed up in cigar or Monica Lewinsky costumes. "For Clinton, it's odd" to be avoiding large crowds, said Republican consultant Edward Gillespie. "A year ago his people always said he feeds off crowds and takes energy from them, and it's true. It's got to kill him."
White House counselor Douglas Sosnik said Clinton's political schedule is tailored to help congressional candidates, most of whom want help raising money. Clinton's own experience in 1994, and Ronald Reagan's in 1996, showed that there is little a president can do to swing voters in a congressional election. "That's not the way that people make up their minds in this country in 1998," he said.
Instead, Sosnik and other aides said, the best thing Clinton can do to help himself is to show the nation that he is doing his job. The next several weeks will throw a succession of opportunities albeit difficult ones at the president. He must close a still-substantial gap with Republicans over the 1999 budget. The leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority will arrive here for administration-monitored peace talks. And a military showdown looms with Yugoslavia over ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Can Clinton govern and plan for his own survival at the same time? "It's a legitimate question that we've answered in the past and we'll answer it again," said White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel. "People want their elected officials to focus on governing. That's the best policy and the best politics."
Clinton, at the Wednesday night fund-raiser, referred to his "hard, cold experience in the cauldron that I have lived in for six years."
Over the next several weeks, aides said, Clinton will minimize direct references to his legal problems, and will also play down explicit vote-Democratic appeals. Instead, he will try to rally voters to the party by stressing issues such as spending more on education, strengthening the rights of health care consumers and preserving the budget surplus until after an accord on long-term changes for Social Security.
Some Clinton aides believe that after the election both congressional Republicans and Democrats will be more willing to consider censuring Clinton as an alternative to impeaching him as punishment for lying about his Oval Office affair with Lewinsky. They were buoyed by the fact that only 31 Democrats somewhat less than White House head-counters had earlier feared voted with the GOP on an open-ended impeachment inquiry. One Democratic strategist close to Clinton called it "the first signs of the closing of the gap" between public opinion polls that have showed support for Clinton and lawmakers in both parties who have been hostile.
White House deputy chief of staff John Podesta, however, said it is premature to speculate about the post-election landscape. "You want to read this book from back to front, and I want to read it from front to back," he said. "I've got to worry about what's in front of me now."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company