By Dan Balz and John F. Harris
From the day he announced his candidacy in 1991, President Clinton has been running against Washington. But as he struggles to save his embattled presidency, aides recognize that Clinton's fate increasingly depends on elected officials, particularly the congressional Democrats he has traditionally neglected.
Since allegations that Clinton had a relationship with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky first surfaced in January, the White House has counted on polls that have shown no significant slippage in the president's job approval rating, even in the aftermath of his speech Monday night that even many allies judged a failure. But with the battleground about to shift to Congress next month when independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is expected to send it his report, Clinton understands that, as a first step, he must mount a major salvage job with Democrats in Congress if he is to survive what could be a protracted struggle.
"It's clear from the reaction to the speech that the whole matter is not behind us," said one senior White House official who has spoken with Clinton about the fallout from the speech.
The response from Republicans and commentators was particularly harsh, but it was the reaction by Democratic congressional leaders especially that unnerved the president's advisers. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) were openly critical of the president, as were many others.
"The first thing he's going to have to do is deal with the leadership," said one senior aide, who said it is likely that Clinton will talk directly with Daschle and Gephardt, seeking absolution for his deception: "There's no scenario under which you're not going to have some difficult conversations. ... They may say, 'Don't talk to us about the appropriations bills. You've got something more fundamental to deal with first.'"
For this reason, some White House advisers say it is inevitable that Clinton is in for a tough round of criticism from within the party once Congress comes back. Starr's report is likely to include more embarrassing details of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky and possibly evidence that Clinton committed perjury or obstruction of justice.
"He doesn't have a choice," a former administration official with close ties to Clinton advisers said. "The only hope he has in having the playing field at least even is to solidify his [Democratic] base. Republicans aren't going to stand up for him. He needs to have his base energized and at a minimum not criticizing him."
Whatever Clinton does, his efforts will be hampered by the fact that his White House staff is exhausted from months of scandal-management and their credibility has been badly damaged. In addition, a number of high-level departures have either been announced or are likely. But Clinton has a number of assets as he enters the next phase of battle, not least is the fact that he will be dealing with a set of difficult international problems. The U.S. attacks on terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan were a pointed reminder that the world is not standing still and there are important decisions to make.
"It does remind both the elites and the citizenry that despite the intrigue of the scandal, there is a real world out there that requires the attention of the president," a former administration official said. "That's healthy particularly to the [Washington establishment] who tend to get taken up in these political matters."
Once Clinton ends his vacation next Sunday, he begins with an important trip to Russia and Ireland that will focus on the economic and political crisis facing Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the fragile peace process in Northern Ireland that has been put in jeopardy by the recent bombing in Omagh that killed 28 people.
After he returns from that trip, aides expect he will begin a round of domestic travel and return to issues that are popular with people. The president is eager for conflict over competing versions of plans to protect the rights of patients in health maintenance organizations (HMOs), and the coming fights over appropriations bills may reprise the 1995 budget battle that led to a government shutdown.
Communications director Ann Lewis said the press of business eventually would dampen the furor over Lewinsky and Clinton's grand jury testimony. "Real-life issues beat scandal," she said. "The goal here is to move the debate back to where people think it ought to be about, which is what their government is doing."
But this strategy holds dangers that were less apparent earlier in the year. It is a measure of Clinton's weakened position that almost one-third of Americans surveyed on the night of the attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan said they believed Clinton's motivation in acting was to distract attention from the Lewinsky investigation. "The bottom line is you have increased cynicism," a former administration official said.
Legislatively, Clinton may have less room for brinkmanship with Republicans for the same reason. Some Democrats outside the White House said the president should find a way to compromise with the GOP on the major appropriations bills, rather than seek confrontation. "They're not negotiating from a position of strength," one Democrat said.
Clinton has another asset as he seeks to repair relations with key Democrats. Whatever anger Democrats feel toward Clinton may be muted by the need for party unity heading into the midterm elections, or as one former administration put it, "the Democratic fear factor."
"Democrats realize their fate is completely and totally tied to this president," the official said. "If he starts dropping like a rock, they're [in trouble]. If he is weakened, they are weakened. That's his card and that's the card he has to play subtlety."
"Like it or not, they've got golden handcuffs to Clinton," another Democratic strategist familiar with White House thinking said. "They can make a rational decision that, like him or not, they're better off sticking with him."
In the meantime, many Republicans appear more determined than ever not to dismiss quickly whatever Starr reports. If the issue is not resolved favorably for Clinton before the election, other problems arise. Congressional Democrats will no longer feel the tug of election-year pressures to remain loyal, further contributing to a perception of weakness in the White House.
Clinton's White House staff may be ill-equipped for a long battle. "They're tired, they're burned out, they're frustrated," said a former administration official. "They've got to bring some new energy in. They've got to bring some new people in. These poor souls are exhausted."
White House press secretary Michael McCurry already has announced his resignation, effective this fall. Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, one of the few people in the White House with the stature to advise the president as a peer, plans to leave later in the fall. Senior adviser Rahm Emanuel also is expected to leave before the end of the year. They represent part of the core of a political team long judged to be one of the shrewdest in White House history at crisis-management, although they were overruled by the president and some of his legal team in framing Monday's speech.
Clinton's decision to criticize Starr was not done simply because he was angry after four hours of combative testimony to the grand jury. Clinton, according to advisers familiar with the speech preparations, believed it was smart politics to remind Americans of what he believed were Starr's violations of privacy and fairness. One adviser, paraphrasing the argument Clinton made during a pre-speech strategy session in the White House solarium, said: "You can't give away the field. We've got too many accounts to settle."
Clinton's lawyers agreed, including Mickey Kantor, one member of the legal team who is counted on for political judgment as well. His opinion made it more difficult for other political advisers to prevail.
Democrats friendly to the administration said Clinton may have to think about restocking his White House staff in preparation for a long struggle. "Even without the departures, you might want to demonstrate forward motion for the last two years to have people of stature join the administration, people with independent reputations," a former official said.
More than one Democrat outside the White House used the analogy of former President Ronald Reagan, who brought former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.) in as chief of staff during the Iran-contra scandal. They said Clinton will need someone who can deliver bad news to the president and deal confidently with congressional leaders. That could mean someone in his Cabinet, or a former member of the House or Senate, they said.
As the polling numbers have held steady this week, Clinton aides said it is less likely that Clinton will say more about the Lewinsky controversy any time soon. Some aides still believe he should look for an opportunity to show more contrition, perhaps in an interview, but as a practical matter there is little chance of that for now. Aides are discussing how Clinton will respond when asked about it on the road in Russia, where if past custom holds he will have a joint news conference with Yeltsin.
For the first time in seven months, Clinton's lawyers may lose their tight grip on information and strategy. Deputy Chief of Staff John Podesta, the top contender for the top White House job once Bowles leaves later this year, is leading the political effort at damage control. Podesta is a veteran of many previous such efforts, on controversies ranging from Whitewater, the travel office firings and 1996 Democratic fund-raising.
Podesta, according to Clinton advisers, is mulling such issues as how to control the public release of information to ensure that leaks from Starr and Republicans do not frame the debate and to corral support from Democrats once the report arrives.
Some White House aides are delighted that they may at last be winning liberation from lawyers, and are free to fight using the political war-room tactics that the Clinton team has relied on so often in the past.
"We were in a legal arena that was completely closed," said one senior administration official. "Now we are in a more public, more political arena."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company