WORLD

Comeback Kid—The Sequel

Clinton’s job-approval ratings soared after the speech

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 1 1999
WORLD

Comeback Kid—The Sequel

Clinton’s job-approval ratings soared after the speech

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 1 1999

Comeback Kid—The Sequel

WORLD

UNITED STATES

ANDREW PHILLIPS

IN WASHINGTON

You know things are going well when your opponents start squabbling among themselves. For Bill Clinton, news of disarray in the enemy camp could hardly have come at a better moment—or from a more unlikely source. His impeachment trial in the United States Senate was still grinding on last week when Pat Robertson, TV evangelist, conservative stalwart and rock-hard Republican, raised the white flag. Robertson went on his “700 Club” religious broadcast and conceded that the President had already won the political battle for the hearts and minds of Americans. “From a public relations standpoint, he’s won,” Robertson said. “They might as well dismiss this impeachment hearing and get on with something else, because it’s over as far as I’m concerned.”

Robertson, of course, has no vote in Clinton’s case. Only the 100 members of the Senate, gathered as a court for just the second time in American history to decide whether a President should be ejected from office, will rule on his fate. But Robertson gave voice to a growing feeling among conservatives that the impeachment fight has become their Vietnam: an honourable war that they simply cannot win because the people are not with them. It is time, many started to conclude last week, for peace—with honour if possible. The tide was turning for Clinton both inside the Senate, where a battery of White House lawyers put on a strong defence for him, and outside, where the President delivered a wellreceived state of the union address that sent his approval ratings even higher. By week’s end, there were unmistakable signs that the impeachment train was running into the sand.

The most striking indication came from a veteran Democratic senator, 81-year-old Robert Byrd of West Virginia. The famously independent Byrd was widely seen as the Democrat most likely to desert Clinton and side with Republicans to pronounce him guilty on the charges of peijury and obstruction of justice brought by the House of Representatives. The Senate has 55 Republicans

Clinton’s job-approval ratings soared after the speech

and 45 Democrats—so a dozen Democrats would have to desert their President to reach the 67 votes required to convict. If there was going to be an eventual crack in the Democrats’ solidarity, went the thinking, Byrd would be at the heart of it. But Byrd surprised them by announcing that he would propose a motion early this week to dismiss the case entirely. “I have become convinced,” he said, “that lengthening the trial will only prolong and deepen the divisive, bitter and polarizing effect that this sorry affair has visited upon our nation.” And, he added, he was driven by a more pragmatic calculation: the 67 votes “are not there ... and they are not likely to develop.” The twist is that when senators vote on Byrd’s motion, they will probably reject it. Senior Republicans made it clear that they were not prepared to throw out the case so soon, no matter how unlikely convicting Clinton might be. The general public may want a speedy end to the impeachment saga, but Republican senators must also ensure that they do not anger the conservative activists who form their reliable base of sup-

port. At the same time, they do not want to humiliate their fellow Republicans from the House of Representatives who approved two articles of impeachment against Clinton and are prosecuting him on the Senate floor. But Byrd’s announcement ended any doubt that Democrats will side with the President, and sent some Republicans scurrying to find ways to cut the proceedings short.

One top Republican senator, Orrin Hatch of Utah, suggested that the Senate might simply vote to adjourn the trial. That would leave the ultimate judgment on Clinton hanging, but, as Hatch noted, it has the benefit that “it ends the battle.” But the chief prosecutor, Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois, told the senators: “By dismissing the articles of impeachment before you have a complete trial, you are sending a terrible message to the people of the country. You’re saying, ‘I guess, perjury is OK if it’s about sex. Obstruction is OK, even though it is an effort to deny a citizen the right to a fair trial.’ ”

This week, the senators will also decide whether to hear evidence from witnesses, a crucial vote that will determine whether the

trial ends quickly or turns into drawn-out legal trench warfare. The prosecutors especially want to call Monica Lewinsky, whose affair with Clinton set off the year-long scandal, Clinton’s secretary Betty Currie, and his friend Vernon Jordan. On Saturday, they won the right to question Lewinsky in private, prior to her possible testimony on the Senate floor.

For their part, Democrats want to grill Kenneth Starr, the indefatigable independent counsel who accused the President of committing perjury and obstructing justice. But even if only a handful of witnesses are permitted, White House lawyers warned, the trial could drag on for months as the case bogs down in duelling legal manoeuvres.

Clinton’s case was bolstered by a strong defence from his lawyers, who argued that the President did not commit the crimes he is charged with. Clinton’s dalliance with young Lewinsky may have been “indefensible, outrageous, unforgivable, shameless,” as former Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers argued eloquently on the President’s behalf during the trial, but his behaviour was not criminal. White House lawyers poked holes in the prosecutors’ charge that Clinton ordered Jordan to find Lewinsky a job to keep her quiet, and that he told Currie to hide gifts he had given the young woman. Clinton, they argued, was not trying to interfere with Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit against him or with Starr’s investigation. He was just trying to do what any married man would do: stop the embarrassing affair from becoming public.

But Clinton’s best defence was in his own hands. Five hours after his lawyers ended their first day of defending him in the Senate, he strode into the House chamber for a hallowed ritual of the American political calendar—the President’s annual state of the union address to Congress. Cheered by Democrats, applauded with strictly correct politeness by Republicans, Clinton laid out his wish list for the coming year. It was among the most ambitious of his six years in office, centred on a proposal to strengthen the U.S. social security system by investing part of its funds in the stock market for the first time. With Washington projecting budget surpluses totalling a staggering $6.7 trillion over the next 15 years, Clinton also proposed more money for medicare, the military, farmers, modernizing schools and long-term health care.

Presidents usually get a popularity boost from the state of the union, and last week was no exception: the first poll after the speech showed Clinton with an extraordinary job-approval rating of 76 per cent. Twenty thousand people came out to cheer him the next day in Buffalo, N.Y., sending a loud message to the senators. Robertson told his “700 Club” audience that the impeachment fight was effectively over. And the Senate was left to find a way out—to declare victory and go home. □