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Claiming the Middle Ground for Democrats

Clinton and Hastert, Reuters President Clinton greets Speaker Hastert before the State of the Union. (Reuters)

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  • By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page A1

    With a blizzard of small initiatives and one big proposal on Social Security, President Clinton last night tried again to prevent the Republicans from occupying the political center ground – and to resuscitate his damaged presidency in the process.

    Clinton entered the House chamber as the first impeached president in a century and a lame duck to boot. Given his weakened condition, the ongoing impeachment trial in the Senate and the fact that Republicans control Congress, little of what he offered in his next-to-last State of the Union address may become law.

    That was certainly the case last year with some of his major offerings, and one question that seemed to hang over Clinton last night was not whether he can talk about the problems of the country, or lay out a lengthy agenda, but whether he has the strength to govern. That may not be clear until the Senate trial is over.

    But like the others he has given, Clinton's State of the Union address was as much a political brief as a governing blueprint. The lengthy speech, while lacking any great rhetorical moments, represented a carefully tailored document designed to appeal to public opinion, unify his own party and put Republicans on the defensive.

    His new agenda sets the stage for a debate over the big across-the-board tax cuts favored by the GOP and Clinton's idea for reserving most of the surplus for saving Social Security. And his education agenda, which calls on the federal government to hold local school districts to account for student performance and teacher competency, represents another effort by the president and the Democrats to heighten differences with Republicans over an issue that has hurt the GOP nationally.

    Clinton made no mention of impeachment last night – and left every impression that he believes he will be in place when the Senate trial is over. Hours after his lawyers began their defense in the Senate, the president seemed determined to ignore his predictament.

    Near the beginning of his speech, he praised new House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's call for bipartisanship and symbolically turned to shake Hastert's hand. "Let's do exactly that," he said. Repeatedly he urged Congress to come together across party lines to solve the country's problems.

    The subliminal, split-screen subtext of the evening: that while Republicans focus on impeachment, the president is doing his job. Clinton's personal motivation was to demonstrate that a year of scandal and impeachment have not diminished his ability or enthusiasm to focus on what he calls "the people's business."

    White House officials, briefing reporters in advance of the speech, sought to reinforce the impression that impeachment has not caused the president to lose focus or intensity. They described his agenda as "the most ambitious since 1993" and promised that he would remain "as aggressive as possible" in promoting his policies until his last days in office.

    But those words rang somewhat more hollow in the seventh year of his presidency. Clinton's proposal to set aside much of the budgetary surpluses over the next 15 years for Social Security (and invest some of that money in the stock market) while creating new individual savings accounts marked what could be his last-gasp effort to build a legacy to offset the stigma of impeachment that will haunt his presidency.

    To some extent, the American people already have rendered a divided judgment on Clinton. The polls show that while Clinton's personal ratings have tumbled in the year since the world first heard the name Monica S. Lewinsky, the public view of his presidency – and the state of the union – has improved.

    A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released yesterday showed that only a quarter of those surveyed said Clinton is honest and trustworthy, while just a fifth said he provides good moral leadership.

    But 69 percent of those surveyed approved of Clinton's performance as president and 81 percent said his presidency has been a success. Three in five said the economy is the best it has been in their lifetimes, and 70 percent said they were satisfied with the way things are going in the country.

    Last night, Clinton's audience was not the men and women of the House who voted to impeach him and those from the Senate who will decide whether to remove him from office. Instead, his audience was the public that has sustained him throughout the last year, and his underlying message to them was that the good times they are enjoying will continue – provided he stays in office.

    As Paul C. Light of the Brookings Institution put it, Clinton was trying to tell the American people, "We're not going to rock the boat, we're going to get you to the millennium."

    Light was among those not persuaded by the White House's assertion that Clinton's agenda represented something dramatically ambitious. Compared to past presidents, particularly Democrats, he said, Clinton's agenda was the least ambitious in decades. That, however, is more a reflection of the times in which the voters prefer incremental changes and small adjustments to the status quo to grand designs. Clinton offered those in abundance.

    Saving his presidency has become a regular subtheme of Clinton's State of the Union speeches. That was the case in 1995 after Republicans took control of Congress. It was true again in 1996 when he used the State of the Union address to turn around his political standing and lay the foundation for his reelection campaign.

    Last year, his State of the Union address came less than a week after the news broke that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr had expanded his investigation of Clinton to include his relationship with Lewinsky. After the speech, his poll numbers shot up and have remained high ever since – despite 12 months of investigation and impeachment.

    Last night he came to the House chamber with an even greater sense of urgency to show he was still in command. Some of those around him say impeachment has only helped to feed his already voracious appetite for more policy proposals to offer the country: a tax credit for long-term care; new accountability standards for local school districts; more programs to fight crime; the first increases in defense spending of his presidency. With time running out on his presidency, Clinton is in a race with the clock to pile up successes.

    But knowing of the opposition he faces from a hostile Congress, his other goal was to frame the political debate before the impeachment trial has been concluded, seize the initiative from the Republicans and keep his own party united. No wonder he resisted calls from Republicans to delay the speech while the Senate deliberated his fate.

    Last year, Republicans blocked Clinton's tobacco bill and brushed aside his call for campaign finance reform. But at the end of the session, he won a series of concessions on domestic policy – including a down payment on a plan to hire 100,000 new teachers. And his admonition to "save Social Security first" intimidated Senate Republicans from enacting a major tax cut that would have dipped into the projected surpluses.

    In the elections, Republicans suffered politically. "Having had Senate Republicans blink [on taxes], we ended up losing a debate about how to spend money," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

    Whether Clinton will be any more successful in this Congress is questionable. The post-impeachment political environment will not be clear until the Senate trial comes to a conclusion – and Clinton's survival is certain. The longer the trial continues, the less time there will be for substantive legislative work this year – with little prospect for significant achievements next year in the middle of the presidential campaign.

    The damage Clinton has inflicted on his ability to govern because of his personal recklessness further diminishes his ability to achieve bipartisan success with a Republican-controlled Congress. And given the results of last year's elections, Clinton is more in debt to the traditional wing of the Democratic Party than at any time in his presidency – leaving him less latitude to negotiate on issues like Social Security and taxes.

    But Republicans recognize that whatever the outcome of the Senate trial, they must begin to offer the country an agenda of their own – and results as well. Key Republicans reacted negatively to Clinton's Social Security proposal, but the GOP has a strong incentive to see if a deal is possible. The gap on education may be equally hard to bridge, unless the GOP shifts ground.

    Republican pollster Whit Ayres said Republicans "are anxious to have a debate and a set of accomplishments that they can take to the country" in 2000." But Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said, "I think the ability to get things done depends far more on whether the Republicans can get their act together than on anything else."

    Clinton's impeachment formed the dramatic backdrop for last night's State of the Union address. With his political capital slipping away, the president hoped to define a political debate that could shape the 2000 elections. Even in his diminished capacity, he sought to show there is still power in his presidency.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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