Hill Democrats See Speech as a Failure
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 1998; Page A01
President Clinton's speech Monday night was increasingly seen by Democrats yesterday as a political failure that has unleashed a torrent of anger among some of the president's most loyal supporters and created problems no one at the White House anticipated.
"It's not only opportunity lost, it's additional troubles gained," a former administration official said. "If one of your goals has to be to try to bring this to closure in some reasonable time frame, the opportunity was there Monday night and was lost."
The list of problems includes an emboldened Republican Party determined to see the investigation through to the end, a Democratic Party for now deflated and demoralized by a Clinton performance that fell far short of its expectations, editorial opinion from newspapers across the country that has been extremely harsh in condemning Clinton's speech, a White House staff whose credibility has been compromised for the battles ahead, and the threat of further problems from Starr's investigation, now in its final stages.
Some Democrats yesterday attributed part of the underwhelming public response from Capitol Hill to the fact that most lawmakers are on vacation or in their home states and have not felt the need to say much. These lawmakers, they said, will be testing opinion at home and if Clinton's approval ratings remain strong as they have so far this week Democrats will quickly rally behind him.
They also predicted that, unless Starr's report provides convincing evidence of obstruction of justice by the president, that many lawmakers will call for the House to take no action against the president, if for no other reason than to show a united front in the midterm elections. "If it's about sex, they're free to condemn it," one Democratic strategist said.
But a former administration official said the principal reason Democrats have reacted the way they have is that they have been burned before by Clinton and worry about what lies ahead. "They're not sure everything is out," he said. "They don't believe there's been this purging process. They're afraid."
A congressional Democrat said, "Members were lied to for seven months and are not happy about it. They're not just going to take the talking points from" the White House.
One Democrat who worked in the past two presidential campaigns said Clinton's tenuous relationships on the Hill have contributed to the weak reaction. "No one's ever stuck up for him," this Democrat said. "Clinton doesn't come from there. He doesn't have deep roots there." He called Congress's reaction "worrisome."
Democrats fear the president's speech makes it more likely that the Starr investigation will overwhelm any other message they hope to deliver during the fall campaign the opposite of what they had hoped and the White House intended.
As the White House scrambled yesterday for advice on how to contain the damaging fallout from the nationally televised address, another prominent Democrat complained about Clinton's performance.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) called the speech "not adequate" because Clinton failed to apologize for his relationship with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky and because he attacked independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. "What were we doing hearing about the special prosecutor?" Moynihan told an Albany, N.Y., radio station.
Moynihan's comments came a day after such Democrats as Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) registered their disapproval of what Clinton did with Lewinsky or how he explained it on Monday night. That same day, Rep. Paul McHale (D-Pa.) urged Clinton to resign.
With some exceptions such as Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who have been steadfast in their defense of Clinton, Democratic lawmakers have been tentative to defensive in their assessments of Clinton's speech, while expressing clear disapproval of his relationship with Lewinsky.
Others have been missing in action. Such prominent elected officials as Sens. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) have made no comment on the president's speech. Aides said they were on vacation and not reachable.
Many Democrats have issued written statements, and the few who have ventured onto national television to try to defend Clinton have made comments critical of him as well. One of those was Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who spoke with Clinton after Monday speech.
On CNN's "Larry King Live" Tuesday, Fazio said, "I'm not disappointed" with Clinton's speech and said further pursuit of the investigation by the independent counsel represented "a kind of partisan vendetta." But Fazio said he was "disappointed in my president" and frustrated that the issue has diverted attention from issues Democrats hope to use in their fall campaigns.
"The follow-up [questions] on this are just deadly," one Democratic strategist said in explaining why Democratic lawmakers may be more comfortable with written statements right now.
The political reaction to the president's speech was far different than anything White House officials anticipated. With overnight polls showing Clinton's approval rating holding strong and reports from focus groups showing a good response to what Clinton had to say, they were caught off guard by the response from Capitol Hill.
Most GOP leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), have cautioned colleagues not to speak of impeachment lest they appear to be prejudging Starr's report to Congress. Most Americans still oppose impeachment, polls show. But Gingrich and others in the leadership did not object when Republican Whip Tom Delay, among others, began calling on Tuesday for Clinton to resign.
Some members have begun floating the possibility of issuing a censure or reprimand against Clinton for his conduct. "Republicans are discussing it as a possibility," said a Democratic congressional source.
Other lawmakers, however, may resist such a move. Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said his panel should decide to either investigate the charges in Starr's report as part of an impeachment inquiry or drop the matter altogether. "I don't think Congress has a role in spanking the president," Graham said.
But even as they largely held their fire against Clinton himself, Republicans were calculating how his difficulties might affect the upcoming congressional elections. In remarks today to a crowd of Young Republicans in suburban Atlanta, Gingrich said the GOP would benefit in November because Democrats will not turn out to vote, the Associated Press reported. "When things happen that make one side's partisans unhappy," he said, "they stay home. When they stay home, they stay home for the whole ticket."
Friends of the administration expressed anger that Clinton had allowed his resentment of Starr to overrule a White House political team, skilled in crisis management, that wanted more contrition and less defiance.
"Closure wasn't achieved and some new troubles were unearthed . . . because he rejected the advice of people who have been loyal and protective of him successfully for six years and are some of the best at this stuff in the history of the presidency," said a former senior official.
Others simply said Clinton failed himself at one of the most critical moments of his presidency.
"Everybody was certain he would rise to the occasion and for the first time he didn't do it," one former administration official said.
Said another veteran of Clinton's first term, "Everybody agrees he blew it. . . . He could have killed this in January or he could have killed it on Monday, and he didn't do it either time."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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