For Clinton, the Outlook Brightens
By John F. Harris and Peter Baker
There are probably no two senators more despised at the White House than Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), both of whom won the particular ire of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton through their aggressive pursuit of the Whitewater affair. Both were repudiated by their home-state voters yesterday -- D'Amato in a contest into which both Clintons plunged by making frequent Empire State appearances.
The issue dominating post-election analysis at the White House last night was what the results would mean for the congressional impeachment inquiry into Clinton's efforts to conceal his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. Privately, some Clinton advisers were predicting that Republicans will be somewhat chastened by the failure of the scandal to produce GOP gains.
Publicly, the message on the Clinton team was one of caution. Chief of Staff John D. Podesta discussed with aides the importance of not overinterpreting the results or appearing to gloat.
"It's a vindication of his efforts to deliver on the things that matter to people," said White House counselor Paul Begala. "But what the Congress does is up to the Congress . . . They have to read the tea leaves for themselves."
Celebrating with sausage pizza, Clinton and top advisers watched early returns in Podesta's office, as political director, Craig Smith, showed the president how to track results through the Internet. Hillary Clinton, who does not like to watch early returns, instead watched Oprah Winfrey's new movie in the White House theater.
But someone slipped her word when D'Amato went down. "She really feels that that's a real plus for the state of New York," spokeswoman Marsha Berry said.
D'Amato infuriated the first lady with his Senate hearings into Whitewater and by questioning her financial transactions, while Faircloth became a White House villain after he had lunch with a federal judge shortly before the court installed Kenneth W. Starr as independent counsel to investigate the Clintons.
The president called about a dozen Democratic winners to congratulate them, including Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who snubbed him two months ago because of the Lewinsky scandal, only to reverse himself weeks later. Joining Clinton to watch the results were pollster Mark Penn; fund-raiser Terence R. McAuliffe; several union and women's group leaders; and former Texas governor Ann Richards.
If White House officials were wary of making predictions about the impeachment inquiry, many close Clinton allies and public surrogates were not.
"They'll look at what's happened and realize they've got to find a way to close it down while saving face," said Peter J. Kadzik, a lawyer who has been helping the White House with its impeachment defense.
"The Republican congressional leadership threw the dice and made it a referendum [on impeachment] in the closing weeks and everywhere the voters have come out the opposite from where the Republicans are."
Lanny J. Davis, former White House special counsel, said: "The message is: No impeachment is warranted, [though] some form of an accountability is justified."
There were some hints that lawmakers were interpreting the message this way. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who earlier this year said he planned to counter Clinton's alleged stonewalling about Lewinsky by mentioning the controversy in every speech, played down the scandal in a CNN interview and said it was not him, but the news media, who was fixated on it.
Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who has been critical of Clinton's conduct, said on CNN, "I'm hearing the public say increasingly this does not rise to the level of 'high crime and misdemeanor.' "
Far from being hurt by the Lewinsky controversy, some outside Clinton advisers said it helped Democrats by producing an anti-impeachment backlash -- particularly by exciting turnout among African American voters.
Former White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel said even independent-minded voters apparently held Republicans more responsible than Clinton for this year's largely dormant domestic policy agenda. "This election is voters saying get back to work -- end the scandal strike," he said.
The White House is operating on that assumption. Clinton's first opportunity to discuss the elections will come today when he meets with reporters at an event highlighting the need to overhaul Social Security.
Earlier yesterday, Clinton said the election was not a referendum on the Lewinsky scandal but "on all the hopes of the American people for the future and their assessment of the present condition, and how we get from here to a better tomorrow."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company