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The Political Costs

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, January 30 1998; Page A23


The steep cost of the scandal that has engulfed President Clinton was underscored by the very success of his State of the Union message.

Here at last was a president freed from the shackles of deficit politics and addressing a country whose skepticism about government had abated. The president proposed a tempered activism on the issues he has always cared about, chief among them education, child care and health care.

Better yet for Clinton, he carried his opposition to large new Republican tax cuts under the banner of fiscal responsibility. If that's not enough, he trumped the Republicans again by saying that any future budget surpluses should go first to shore up the Social Security system.

The tax-cutting wing of the Republican Party was livid, knowing that Clinton was brandishing the "third rail" of American politics against them. If the choice is between tax cuts and money for new programs, tax-cutters have a fighting chance. But if their tax cuts can be branded as a threat to "the future solvency of Social Security," they know they lose.

To see how much the Monica Lewinsky story has hurt Clinton, try to imagine what the post-speech commentary would have been like without it. Imagine Republicans having to cope with the popularity of Clinton's program. Imagine as well the Democratic solidarity that would have been created by his proposed minimum-wage increase side-by-side with all that new education spending.

The problem for Clinton is this: Democratic solidarity won't be there as long as these charges hover over him. And Republicans won't have to worry much about the Clinton program as long as the news is dominated by sex and tapes and dark intimations of perjury.

The Clinton team is trying hard and has been playing all the proper chords in a campaign aimed almost entirely at Democrats and Clinton supporters.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's declaration that a "vast right-wing conspiracy" lay behind the president's troubles risked being dismissed for her reference to "conspiracy," the very word that is so popular among those she was attacking.

But she did succeed in reminding people that there have been a lot of false, nutty and malicious charges against the president -- some so irresponsible that many Republicans were forced to denounce them. She also encouraged a serious look by news organizations at the links between the anti-Clinton conspirators and the people behind the new sex accusations.

Anti-press sentiment is also kicking in, to the president's benefit. You can measure it by the frequency with which you hear the words "rush to judgment" and "feeding frenzy." Reporters who are by no means pro-Clinton have started worrying publicly about how facts and rumors have become intertwined in so many reports and commentaries.

And Clinton's lieutenants are getting people to ask the question the administration wants asked in advance of any definitive revelations about the president's relationship with Lewinsky: Do we really want to throw a president out of office for a failure having to do with sex? The more the story is about sex and the less it is about lying or perjury, the better it is for the president.

All this, and the lagging negotiations over immunity for Lewinsky, have slowed the story down, which is crucial to Clinton's survival strategy. He has won himself some popular sympathy, especially of the negative sort: against independent counsel Kenneth Starr, against the Clinton attackers, against the press. These factors plus a good speech help explain his continued high job approval. But none of this has resolved the underlying factual questions, nor the president's core political problem, which is among Democrats.

It is Democrats who are put in gravest jeopardy by a greatly weakened Clinton. The paradox is that Democrats now have a popular program, thanks in large part to Clinton, but also a much diminished capacity to carry it forward, thanks to Clinton's problems.

It's already quite clear that Democrats are wary of embracing Clinton's version of events because there is no Clinton version of events, only denials. The limits of their patience are precisely defined: There is an election this November, and Democratic candidates will defend only so much.

Most Democrats still hope the story is false. They will watch with some hope and huge fascination as this Olympic-class escape artist tries to work his magic one more time.

But if the facts of the story get worse, you will begin hearing Democrats talk publicly about the many overlooked virtues of Al Gore. That's when you will be certain that this scandal is not like the others.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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