WASHINGTON -- As he confronts the gravest crisis of his political life, President Clinton is finding himself with diminished credibility, with the modest agenda of a lame-duck president and with few of the valuable political advisers who were by his side earlier in his presidency.
Gone from the White House are such skilled political veterans as Leon E. Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff, who had a keen understanding of the culture of Capitol Hill, and former press secretary Mike McCurry, who offered the public an authoritative, yet genial, face for the White House.
As is generally true in the final years of a two-term presidency, some key political positions are being filled by third- and fourth-string players. Some have been with the Clinton administration from the start and have the advantage of experience, but not necessarily the judgment and instincts of the earlier draft picks.
To compensate, Clinton has been relying heavily on advisers outside the White House as he grapples with the reality of some sort of impeachment trial in the Senate.
He has been on the phone constantly, say those with knowledge of the president's activities, reaching out to such political heavyweights as former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell -- who has agreed to informally help the president navigate the Senate phase of the impeachment process -- and to many of his former staff members.
Some former advisers -- such as Panetta, former White House special counsel Lanny Davis and political strategists James Carville and Rahm Emanuel -- are among a circle of Clinton allies who regularly appear on televisionor talk to the news media on behalf of their former boss. Some of them participate in morning conference calls with the White House to coordinate the message of the day.
To augment his political brain trust, Clinton brought back to the White House last fall some former staffers -- including Steve Ricchetti, a lobbyist in private practice who once worked for Clinton as a Senate lobbyist, and Susan Brophy, another former Clinton lobbyist who had moved overseas -- to work specifically on relations with Congress, where Clinton has never enjoyed great favor.
"I can't think of another president who, at this stage in his presidency, was so dependent on those people who've left," says Charles O. Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.
The turnover at the Clinton White House, though typical of two-term presidencies, has been exacerbated by the scandal that has dominated the president's second term. That crisis has caused not only fatigue and disgruntlement among aides but also frustration that little of substance is being achieved in the shadow of the continuing scandal.
Some close to Clinton say the exodus of much of the administration's political talent has taken its toll, resulting in, for instance, Clinton's reliance on a team of lawyers that is interested mostly in protecting him from legal liability. Clinton's highly legalistic statements on the Lewinsky matter antagonized some members of Congress and may have contributed to the impeachment push.
"He has suffered from not having a political press lawyer -- somebody who understands the legal issues but sees them through a political prism," said one source close to the administration who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"From the beginning of the Lewinsky scandal, that perspective has been missing. A lot of judgments were made because of the absence of that person being in the room. They missed the additional perspective needed to mitigate the political interests."
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, agrees. He points to the administration's now-abandoned idea, suggested by current chief of staff John Podesta on a Sunday morning talk show the day after Clinton was impeached, that the White House might challenge the constitutionality of an impeachment by a lame-duck House.
"It would be helpful to have some wise people around to say, 'If the president stalls in any way or goes into a legal mode, it will be a very bad mistake,' " Hess says.
In matters of public policy, Clinton, who has a genuine interest in topics ranging from health care reform to Middle East relations, has long been an independent operator. Though famous for seeking as many viewpoints from as many sources as possible, Clinton generally does so to trigger or to help shape his own ideas, presidential scholars say. By contrast, Ronald Reagan was far more staff-dependent on policy matters.
But in his political calculations, Clinton has relied more heavily than most presidents on an evolving cadre of advisers, strategists and pollsters. During his six years in office, he has sought the counsel of early strategists, such as Carville, Paul Begala and George Stephanopoulos, who ran the famed Clinton campaign "war room." Later, Clinton relied on David Gergen and then on Dick Morris, the exiled pollster who was himself the focus of an embarrassing sex scandal in 1996 but who was the main person Clinton turned to for advice in January, when the Lewinsky scandal hit.
"There's been an awful lot of dependence on those people," says Jones, noting that Clinton's presidency has been as politically oriented as it has been policy oriented.
Though some say the lack of first-rate political talent on the current White House staff contributed to the impeachment crisis, others say there was little anyone could have done to keep Clinton out of trouble -- and even less that his allies can do now.
"Whether they have Leon Panetta or God in there, they can't change certain facts that are immutable," says Davis, the former White House special counsel.
Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Study of American Government, says Clinton has been weakened to the point where his fate in the Senate is largely out of his hands and subject to political forces beyond his control.
"The ultimate irony is that Bill Clinton, presidential activist, has gotten himself in a situation where all of his horses and all the king's men are irrelevant as to whether Humpty Dumpty gets put together again," Ginsberg says.
Similarly, presidential scholars say, there are unlikely to be any speech writers or strategists clever enough to help the president shift the spotlight from impeachment and engage the public on issues such as Social Security reform, education and health care.
As Clinton embarks on one of his most policy-oriented and tradition-bound presidential activities -- the State of the Union address, set for Jan. 19 -- the specter of impeachment is likely to hang over him as he speaks in the very House chamber where the historic vote to impeach him took place exactly one month earlier.
For one thing, says John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, Clinton must avoid -- in the State of the Union and in any other public statements -- words or unintentional double-entendres that could trigger reminders of his travails.
"He can't use words such as 'honestly,' " Pitney says. "He can't say, 'We must speak the truth.' It would be very difficult for him to talk about ethics."
On the other hand, Clinton can use the speech to try to reinforce his public support by appearing strong, charismatic and presidential and by stressing his administration's accomplishments.
Last winter, the address -- delivered soon after the Lewinsky story broke -- proved to be a defining moment for Clinton. It earned him high marks from an American public that expressed disdain for his private behavior but approval of his presidency. Public opinion has been favorable ever since -- climbing, in fact, to the point where Clinton stands higher now in some polls than any other president on record at the same point in his tenure.
But public opinion, which failed to help Clinton fend off impeachment by the House, may ultimately be of limited value. Some presidential scholars say that, with so little political capital to draw upon, and with his fate largely in the hands of others, Clinton's only salvation may be the Constitution.
If the Democrats maintain the same degree of unity that they did in the House -- as is expected -- they will deny Republicans the two-thirds majority of Senate votes required by the Constitution to remove a president from office.
What's more, says Pitney, the stark realization that a Senate trial could lead to the ouster of a highly popular, twice-elected president -- for the first time in history -- could give lawmakers pause.
"This is the last step," the political scientist says of the impeachment process. "This is the end of the line."
Pub Date: 1/01/99