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Aides Say Clinton 'Vents' but Is Set on Issues

Clinton on Trial

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  • By John F. Harris and Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, February 12, 1999; Page A1

    Over the past week, President Clinton has quoted Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. about the need to forgive enemies, to "let go and walk away" from grievances.

    At other times, and in other moods, his thoughts can take a less charitable turn. In sour phone calls with friends, in snappish conversations with aides, he has talked of his anger at his Republican enemies and spoken about payback.

    Sometime today, after a year of perhaps the most personally embarrassing scandal any president has had to endure, the post-impeachment phase of the Clinton presidency will begin. As Clinton plots the balance of his term, say several people who have spoken with him, his need for redemption is mingled with an urge for retribution.

    The turns of Clinton's mood as he emerges victorious from his Senate trial -- whether he will be guided more by humility or hubris -- could have important implications for Washington's agenda over the next two years.

    Clinton, White House aides said yesterday, is determined to turn his mind quickly from impeachment and is eager to work with the Republican majority on a range of issues, most notably reforming fiscally imperiled programs such as Medicare and Social Security. With Republicans needing to improve their own reputations in the wake of impeachment, their argument goes, the timing could be right for a season of productive governing in the capital.

    But Clinton's other goals may work against cooperation. Numerous aides say Clinton's paramount goal -- both in the short-term political sense and in his larger campaign to shape a legacy -- is to help elect Vice President Gore as his successor and to recapture a Democratic majority in the House in 2000.

    And the White House stumbled yesterday in its effort to walk away gracefully from the impeachment drama. The New York Times quoted anonymous advisers to Clinton saying that his appetite for helping Democrats to take back the House had been piqued by his desire to make House Republicans, especially the managers who prosecuted the case in the Senate, pay for their vote to impeach him.

    White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, sources said, exploded over the story at yesterday's senior staff meeting, insisting that revenge was not the president's motive and fuming that intimates to Clinton would say it was.

    But the story echoed. Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson held a news conference to denounce Clinton for crafting a "legacy of vengeance." Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) issued a statement saying it was "deeply troubling that the president views closure of this constitutional process as an opportunity for revenge."

    The reality, Clinton associates said, is more complex. Clinton is prone to what one aide called "venting" in which he seethes with anger at Republicans and recites district-by-district analyses of which members might be vulnerable in 2000.

    Yet aides said Clinton knows the larger task of cleansing his reputation requires that both he and Republicans quickly change the subject. And while Clinton is determined to help Democrats win back the House -- his most important contribution will be raising money -- his and the party's efforts will target vulnerable Republicans, not those with roles in the impeachment drama.

    "The notion that you would let pique drive your political strategy is absurd, it's insulting," said White House counselor Paul Begala.

    A president prone by temperament to accommodation over confrontation is hardly likely to brood over a political hit list, another aide said. "This is not Lyndon Johnson," the aide said.

    Perhaps not, but there are signs that Democrats will keep the politics of impeachment alive if it continues to work to their advantage. In the first fund-raising letter mailed this week to hundreds of thousands of Democrats, Gore implored supporters to defeat "forces of divisiveness, extremism and personal destruction."

    James Carville, a 1992 Clinton political consultant who speaks frequently with his old client, said Clinton regards the 1994 loss of Congress as part of the "unfinished business" of his term. Carville assumes that Clinton feels the anger of other Democrats at the GOP's handling of the impeachment. In their conversations, however, he discerns less anger in Clinton than "nervousness" and "exhaustion."

    Even as White House officials say they will not gloat over Clinton's surviving impeachment, they sound a brash note about their political standing at the trial's end.

    With the president high in public opinion polls and Republicans languishing, Clinton aides say they expect to face the coming policy battles in the dominant position. Divided Republicans, uncertain of what to promote as a policy agenda, mean that "we're the only people on the playing field," one aide said.

    In contrast, Clinton in his State of the Union speech last month released a barrage of poll-tested policy initiatives. Some of them, including more money for education and the environment and regulating health maintenance organizations, are aimed to please Democratic constituencies. Others, such as more money for defense, co-opt GOP policies.

    As Clinton promotes this long agenda, questions loom: What parts is he prepared to mark as top priorities and push to passage, even if it means compromising with Republicans? And are Gore and congressional Democrats helped more by having Clinton enact policies or by drawing clear lines of contrast with the GOP?

    Some Clinton allies predict that the interests of a centrist president inevitably will collide with more liberal Democrats in Congress.

    "There will be political cries in the Democratic Party to make issues instead of progress," said Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

    From has advocated that Clinton chart his own course and not allow himself to be tied too closely to the agenda of the congressional wing of the Democratic Party. "If he had followed the course of congressional Democrats over the years, particularly in the 1995-96-97 period, he probably wouldn't be running a 68 percent approval rating now," From said.

    But others said the searing impeachment process will force Clinton to think twice about separating himself from those very congressional Democrats who uniformly opposed impeaching him in the House. "He's got to balance the choice between confrontation and accommodation with the Republican Congress while maintaining the support of a united Democratic caucus," said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who worked for Clinton in his first presidential campaign.

    Some analysts, offering a view endorsed by the White House, say the choices Clinton has faced in the past between accommodating Republicans or unifying Democrats may be less pointed now. Congressional Republicans have a slimmer majority and more tenuous hold on power, and House Democrats are enjoying better relations with the White House than they have in years. Moreover, the size of the budget surplus has made it easier to find politically palatable solutions on issues such as revamping Social Security.

    While some congressional Democrats worry that Clinton will abandon them to strike self-serving bargains with Republicans, his ambitions for Gore could make that less likely.

    "I don't think Gore is going to want his left flank unguarded," said one congressional Democrat. "So I think his politics and our politics will coincide."

    Elaine Kamarck, a former adviser to Gore who is now a professor at Harvard University, said Clinton's instinct will be to push for legislative agreements but agreed that he may be able to accomplish his goals without fracturing his party.

    "The Republicans need a deal more than the Democrats do because they're the ones who are now in trouble," she said.

    The very size of Clinton's agenda will work to his advantage. Aides say Clinton is most determined to achieve legislative results on Social Security. He will also push hard for his plan to link federal education funds to requirements that schools end "social promotion" of poorly performing students, impose tougher discipline policies and demand that teachers have more academic grounding in the subjects they teach.

    Even if there are White House signing ceremonies on these issues, there still would be plenty to fight about -- in particular, whether and how to cut taxes. Congressional Democrats, said Begala, have come around over the past year to Clinton's view that "good politics and good policy are identical."

    But some Democrats say the essential choice for this year belongs to Clinton, not lawmakers of either party. The president, said pollster Geoff Garin, must decide whether to "seek vindication or seek forgiveness.

    "He's been so beaten upon by the Republicans that he'll be hard put not to seek vindication," Garin said. "But I think the important thing for Clinton is at the end of this to be a lot bigger than the Republicans ever were during it."


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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