The President tries to survive the tempest, but his party support is fraying as candidates worry about his coattails
By James Carney and Karen Tumulty
(TIME, Sept. 7) -- As storms, real and metaphysical, buffeted the South, brewed turmoil in Moscow and depressed world financial markets, the clouds of another tempest hung about the borrowed clapboard cottage, where President Clinton and his family were winding up their decidedly unrelaxing vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The official word from the White House was that a "healing process" was under way. And indeed, the President was doing his best to make amends, not only with the woman who is making good on her promise to stick with him for better or worse, but also with the political party that has always been far less certain of its marriage with Clinton. Even as he was resisting his advisers' urgings that he make another public act of contrition, Clinton was offering private ones by phone to dozens of angry, dispirited Democratic leaders. "You pick up your Directory of Distinguished Democrats, and you'll hit a good percentage of the people he's called," said press secretary Mike McCurry. "He's getting a good dose of medicine in those calls."
On a brief venture away from Martha's Vineyard last Thursday to speak about school safety, Clinton had lunch at Scano's Restaurant in Worcester, Mass., with five Democratic lawmakers, including Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. Over a "steak bomb" submarine sandwich, Clinton reluctantly brought up his troubles and seemed perplexed by the reaction of his party. For a President who invented the strategy of "triangulation"--staking out a position away from his party when its interests do not serve his--making amends with Democrats is a new experience.
He would try to send a signal the next day. Unlike the political audience in Worcester, the crowd at Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard was ensconced in a church and used to the dramatic arc of a sermon--of sin and repentance. It was a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington, and there to introduce Clinton was Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, an authentic hero of the civil rights movement. The hours before were filled with conference calls about Russia and the impending Northwest Airlines strike, and as Clinton was riding to the chapel, he was still stitching together a speech he had started working on just before lunch, jotting down notes on a two-page draft sent from Washington overnight. (Almost nothing of that version would remain.) The words the press would focus on came from ideas rattling around in his head about the spirit of the civil rights movement. Still he delivered them as a wry aside, done with mirrors to simulate depth. "I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness," Clinton said. "And if you have a family, an Administration, a Congress and a whole country to ask, you're going to get a lot of practice." He also said, "In these last days, it has come home to me, again, something I first learned as President--but it wasn't burned in my bone--and that is that in order to get [forgiveness], you have to be willing to give it."
Was it a plea for forgiveness? Kind of. And was that last remark a sign that the President was forgiving--as well as asking for forgiveness from--Kenneth Starr? He would certainly like us to believe that. But like so many Clinton remarks, including his admission of "not appropriate" behavior with Monica Lewinsky, there is less than meets the ear. While Clinton knows the original speech fell short of true remorse, aides say, his opinion is that there can be no do-overs. Still, aides pressing him all week to correct his earlier speech with an equally big event were surprised at what he did do. Future bids for forgiveness, it seems, will be made when the occasion allows, room by room.
But will such a strategy ameliorate the mood swing of tsunami proportions in his party? Democrats had tended to think that when the time came, the most gifted politician of his generation would find a way to put the entire Monica mess behind everyone. "People think he's a Houdini. They thought he would speak and that would solve it," said a Democratic strategist. "When it didn't, it tapped their fears and eclipsed their faith in his political skills." If the scandal drags on, there is a danger that public opinion will catch up with the growing number of politicians and opinion makers who are already calling for his resignation. A quarter-century ago, polls had Richard Nixon looking unassailable in the early months of Watergate.
With congressional elections only nine weeks away, Democrats fear Clinton's troubles not only may have blown their opportunity for winning the House back but also may cost them up to 30 seats. Some are even talking about a catastrophe that seemed unthinkable only a month ago: losing the five seats in the Senate that Republicans need to prevent the Democratic minority from blocking G.O.P. legislation by filibuster. That would leave Democrats with virtually no leverage in either house of Congress. And each of those Democratic seats could be critical to Clinton's survival, should the question ultimately become one of impeachment.
Nothing was more telling of the new political calculus than the fact that Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt last week seemed to have got their scripts switched. It was the Republican Speaker who cautioned against a rush to judgment in the case, saying "a single human mistake" does not warrant tossing Clinton out of office. Meanwhile, the House Democratic leader was fueling talk of impeachment simply by refusing to quash it. While such an ordeal would be difficult for the country, Gephardt said, "this is also a strong country, and we have strong processes."
Statesmanship is an easy call for Gingrich now. One of the first rules of politics is not to get in the way of your opponent when he is destroying himself. And nothing would be so likely to unite the Democratic troops behind Clinton as a chance to turn their fire on the hugely unpopular Speaker. "We're not going to make it easy for them," says a Gingrich adviser. Far more significant was the message that Gephardt was sending to the White House as it braces for the moment, probably only a few weeks away, when independent counsel Starr's report on the scandal finally arrives on Capitol Hill. Gephardt's studied neutrality on the subject was a loud warning that Clinton can no longer count on support--or even the benefit of the doubt--from Democrats.
Gephardt's comments sent the White House into a panic. Erskine Bowles, Clinton's chief of staff, tracked Gephardt down in Kentucky to complain, and urged the Missouri Democrat "to walk this thing back," as a top aide to the President put it. Gephardt did what Bowles asked, but only up to a point. "I do trust the President," he assured TIME the next day, adding that "we ought not jump to conclusions one way or the other." But no amount of rephrasing could hide the fact that Democrats are distancing themselves from Clinton as they nervously wait for Starr's report.
For California Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat running for a second term, the predicament is particularly unpleasant: not only do polls show her locked in a tie with G.O.P. challenger Matt Fong, but also her daughter is married to one of Hillary Clinton's younger brothers. Boxer deemed the President's behavior "wrong" but urged everyone to "move on." That wasn't enough for Fong, who painted the Senator as a hypocrite who led the chorus of protest against Republicans Clarence Thomas and then Senator Bob Packwood when they were accused of sexual misconduct, but was now giving Clinton a virtual pass. "Barbara," said Fong, "your silence on this is deafening."
In a normal year, politicians would scramble to be seen with a President whose job-approval ratings have remained over 60%. But in Raleigh, N.C., Democratic freshman Bob Etheridge proudly boasts that Tipper Gore will be appearing at a fund raiser for him this week and grows evasive when asked whether he'd like a similar favor from the Commander in Chief. "I ran my own campaign last time, and we plan to do the same thing this time," he says. His reluctance is understandable, given the fact that Etheridge recently became the first Democrat to be the target of a television ad tarring him with Bill Clinton's sexual infidelities. "Scandal after scandal, day after day," intones the ad. "And who stands with Bill Clinton, even now? Liberal Bob Etheridge."
Such ads are part of a tactical two-step by the G.O.P. While national figures like Gingrich and Senate majority leader Trent Lott remain temperate and judicious, party operatives are urging rank-and-file Republicans to exploit Clinton's troubles at will. "It's a good strategy, especially for Republican challengers," says G.O.P. pollster Glen Bolger. When the party ran ads linking Democratic incumbents to an embattled Bill Clinton in 1994, Bolger says, "it worked extremely well. It told voters that they could send a message to Clinton by defeating a Democrat in Congress. It might work again."
But only if voters in large numbers turn against the President. So far, that hasn't happened, which is a good thing for vulnerable Democrats like Brad Sherman. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to thank you," Sherman, a first-term House member, told his "town hall" audience last week in Westlake Village, Calif. "You asked 27 questions tonight--and not one about Monica Lewinsky." Those in attendance echoed the words of rancher Grant Gerson, 77, who said, "People are fed up with it. I don't think it's relevant to anything going on here." And yet Sherman, who won his seat in 1996 by just 5 percentage points, is concerned that the scandal will cost him 3 of those points this year, turning his re-election bid into a fight for survival.
If Clinton will not improve on his confession, most Democrats hope he will at least get the subject off the public's mind. The best opportunity may come this fall in a series of battles over tax cuts and spending programs. Republicans have left out of the budget almost all the popular proposals Clinton offered in his State of the Union address. Democrats believe a series of vetoes might remind Americans that they voted for Clinton, despite their misgivings about his character, because they liked his policies.
But Clinton may not get the second chance he seeks--particularly if the choice for Democrats comes down to their survival or his. After all their ups and downs with a President who has both resurrected their party and undercut many of the ideals it once stood for, Democrats say Clinton may be asking too much of them this time. Even his strongest defenders understand the ambivalence. "He's created us, hurt us, restored us and damaged us," says New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli. "There's probably a price to be paid."
--With reporting by Margaret Carlson/Martha's Vineyard, Dan Cray and James Willwerth/Los Angeles and Greg Fulton/Atlanta