WORLD

CRUNCH TIME

Beset by his critics, Clinton savors some victories

CARL MOLLINS August 8 1994
WORLD

CRUNCH TIME

Beset by his critics, Clinton savors some victories

CARL MOLLINS August 8 1994

CRUNCH TIME

WORLD

Beset by his critics, Clinton savors some victories

CARL MOLLINS

REPORT FROM WASHINGTON

The dog days of summer beat hard on President Bill Clinton as Washington’s wet and sticky July oozed into its final week. Beset by critics of both his personal past and his political present, his promised domestic reforms backlogged in Congress and his conduct of foreign policy widely faulted, the President’s approval rating in opinion polls languished at a low ebb. July’s last week opened on a briefly sunny note at the White House as Clinton beamed at a U.S.-brokered handshake for peace by Jordan’s King Hussein and Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, formally ending a 46-year “state of belligerency” between the neighbor countries. But then, in two con-

gressional inquiries, Republican opponents pressed accusations of ethical misdeeds in the Clinton administration in connection with the durable Whitewater affair. And Congress dickered the President’s priority health insurance legislation into several conflicting versions. But finally, a breakthrough: congressional negotiators cracked an impasse and produced a sweeping anti-crime bill, a promise high on the President’s must-do list. It gave a jubilant Clinton reason to believe again in his own claim after surviving serious personal setbacks in his 1992 run for the White House: “comeback kid.” Eighteen months into his four-year term, Clinton confronts a wider array of troubles and a tighter timetable than when he faced down electionyear charges of an extramarital affair, and of dissembling about his evasion

of the military draft during the Vietnam War. Torch singer Gennifer Flowers went public about the alleged affair 10 months before the election of November, 1992. Now, the Clinton deadline for a political turnaround is barely three months away: the midterm congressional elections on Nov. 8. In that span, to convince voters that his administration warrants retaining Democrat majorities in Congress, he must defuse allegations of personal scandal and goad legislators into progress on the rest of his domestic agenda. He also must try to resolve unpopular for-

eign-policy commitments in Haiti and Bosnia.

The $42-billion crime bill, increasing punishment for violence and funding preventive programs, is the first major Clinton-sponsored social measure to succeed. There has been little else for the White House to crow about since Clinton convinced Congress to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement last November. In his first state of the union address to Congress in January, the President listed an anti-crime law as a social

priority, along with his centrepiece healthcare program and welfare reform. Despite the savaging of his medical insurance plan by special interests, and opposition attacks on the crime bill as being more a pre-election slush fund than an effective weapon against criminals, opinion polls show that health care and crime are the foremost public concerns. With an eye on the November election, the judiciary committees of both chambers of Congress hastily fashioned an agreement on the anti-crime measures. Clinton hailed their work at a justice department celebration as “the toughest, largest, smartest federal attack on crime in the history of our country.”

The package of punishment and preventive measures extends capital punishment to cover about 60 offences, including car-jacking, orders life imprisonment for criminals convicted of three violent crimes (“three strikes and you’re out”) and makes violence against women a federal civil rights offence. The measure will outlaw 19 types of assault weapons and provide funds to states and municipalities to reinforce police forces by 100,000 officers. There is money for prisons,

and $12 billion for such crime prevention programs as grants to youth clubs.

Following his victory on the crime bill last week, Clinton got even more good news: senators voted 87 to 9 to confirm Boston federal appeals court judge Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court. Breyer, 55, was the President’s second high-court nominee. His first, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was confirmed last year, 96 to 3. Breyer will replace retiring Justice Harry Blackmun, 85, in October.

With those accomplishments, Clinton is working on other blights on his presidency. To help clear the taint of scandal in cases that arise from his past as governor of Arkansas, Clinton is seeking postponement of a sexual harassment lawsuit trial until he leaves the presidency. The suit is based on an alleged 1991 sexual proposition he made in a Little Rock hotel room to Paula Jones, then a state government clerk. Meanwhile, Clinton awaits the outcome, possibly by summer’s end, of an investigation by independent prosecutor Robert Fiske, into the Whitewater affair. That case centres on financial and property dealings in the 1980s, through a since-bankrupted Arkansas savings-and-loan company, in which both Bill and Hillary Clinton took part. But it also includes developments since the Clintons moved into the White House in January, 1993— the focus of hearings launched separately last week by the banking committees of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Senators examined the circumstances and aftermath of the death in July, 1993, of Vincent Foster, a friend of the Clintons from Arkansas who served as a White House lawyer and had handled Whitewater matters for them.

Police at the time ruled the death by gunshot a suicide. Fiske, in a lengthy interim report on June 30, agreed. He blamed depression, and said there were no grounds to believe that the death was connected with Whitewater. Despite that, rumors and some media reports persisted in surrounding the tragedy with questions. And there are also allegations that White House staff obstructed police when they sought to inspect Foster’s office.

The House committee hearings quizzed White House staff about their discussions, over five months to last February, with U.S. Treasury officials about a Treasury agency’s plans to name the Clintons as witnesses in a prosecution of the failed Arkansas company’s officers. Despite the appearance of possible interference in that case, Fiske cleared the participants of criminal wrongdoing in his interim report. And in last week’s Capitol Hill inquiry, the participants, including Clinton’s former chief of staff Thomas McLarty, insisted that there was nothing unethical about the Treasury-White House contacts. Those meetings, they said, even avoided discussion of the substance of the pending charges: the talks were only designed to alert the White House to media questions.

To observers, the congressional hearings at times seemed like a partisan rehearsal for the November election. Wisconsin Republican Toby Roth persisted that “it looks as though the White House tried to kill the [Treasury] investigation.” Democrats denounced the hearings, convened under Republican pressure, as a pointless waste of time. To California Democrat Maxine Waters, they were not only a waste, but “boring.”

Many voters, weary of the Whitewater case, may agree. In a mid-July poll by The New York Times and CBS News, respondents had other concerns. They ranked health care equal with crime as the most important problems facing the country. Four out of five poll respondents said it is “very important” that every American receives health insurance coverage. But by almost an identical margin, most people predicted that Congress will be unable to reach agreement in time to pass an enacting bill before the end of the year.

If Clinton and his Democrats have their way with health care, as they did with the anti-crime bill, they may yet surprise skeptical voters. As the President’s fortunes go in the next three months, so will go in great part the fate of his party’s candidates in November. That will be a contest for 34 of the 100 Senate seats and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. With 21 Democrat-held Senate seats at stake, at least five incumbents retiring, and the Republicans required to defend only 13 seats, the governing party needs all the help it can get to

retain its 56 to 44 Senate majority. In the House, where the Democrats hold a 77-seat majority, the Republicans face a daunting challenge—and their own unbroken record as the chamber’s minority party since 1955.

A Gallup poll, conducted in late July as Clinton completed his 18th month in office, placed his approval rating at 42 per cent—a steep decline from the 58 per cent following his health-care pitch in his January address to Congress. That prompted some gloating among Republicans who observed that Gallup gave the same rating to the previous Democrat in the White House, Jimmy Carter, at the same stage in his presidency. And Carter, like Clinton, a reform-minded southerner, failed to win a second term. What the Republicans did not note was that the man who beat Carter in 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan, stood at roughly the same place (44-per-cent approval) at the same point in his presidency. And Reagan came back to win re-election.

As for Clinton, he won in 1992 with only 43 per cent of the popular vote. And after last week’s relief from a summer of discontent, the self-described comeback kid, if he ever gets out of Whitewater clean, is clearly not to be counted out. □