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For Clinton, a chance to mend legacy; But overcoming stigma of impeachment might be nearly impossible; GOP could be biggest loser; Post-trial bitterness likely to impede work on ambitious agenda


WASHINGTON -- With his personal reputation in tatters but his political power still potent, Bill Clinton will have just two years to burnish his legacy and try to banish Monica Lewinsky to a footnote in his presidency.

From Gennifer Flowers to the second presidential impeachment trial in history, Clinton has proved himself to be a political escape artist without parallel. But even for the self-described "Comeback Kid," the mission ahead may be next to impossible.

The peace and prosperity that helped him weather the scandal have left the president without the kind of adversity that would allow him to be truly heroic.

And, despite Clinton's vow to work with his Republican adversaries, the political demands of his Democratic allies -- coupled with lingering resentments and distrust -- could make progress on the nation's most pressing problems unlikely.

Those doubts were amply illustrated when Clinton adviser James Carville hinted that he wanted to bury the hatchet in someone's back, then stopped himself.

Burying the hatchet is "a good idea for most people. It's good for the president. It's good for the speaker. It's just not good for people like me," fumed Carville.

"I'm going to bury the hatchet in a whole lot of people's faces, not their backs, their faces."

The Lewinsky affair and impeachment saga "will always be there," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"Some will see it as a permanent stain on the presidency. Others will see the Clinton presidency as a missed opportunity, that Bill Clinton could have accomplished so much if he had not been consumed by this sex scandal."

Voter contempt for Clinton's impeachment will undoubtedly work in the president's favor, at least in the short run.

In his budget and his State of the Union address, Clinton laid out an aggressive agenda for a president in his sixth year in office, including ensuring the continued solvency of Social Security and Medicare, linking federal education aid to school and teacher performance, and providing tax credits for long-term health care, the working disabled and stay-at-home parents.

Clinton extended a hand to GOP leaders who worked hard for his ouster, but by outlining relatively specific proposals, he also set a high bar for those Republicans to leap over if they want bipartisan deals on his agenda. That has raised Democratic hopes that he will not be quick to compromise.

If he holds firm, any legislative accomplishments can be framed as Democratic victories -- while defeats can be be attributed to GOP partisanship.

"If people are willing to join us despite how they have voted [on impeachment and conviction], we'll welcome them," said Douglas Sosnik, a senior White House adviser. "But this is our agenda. It's no secret."

Republicans find themselves in dire straits. The GOP is identified as the party of impeachment, without a discernible agenda, unpopular with the public and divided internally.

To overcome those negatives, the GOP's largely untested and unknown leaders hope to pass a flurry of legislation to prove that they can govern in post-impeachment Washington.

But Republicans are not sure what legislation they want to pass.

Economic conservatives want a 10 percent, across-the-board cut in income tax rates funded by the federal budget surplus. Social conservatives demand an end to the "marriage penalty," which taxes some married couples at higher rates than singles.

And Republican moderates have proposed less expensive targeted tax cuts more in line with Clinton's own proposals.

Worse still, a House GOP aide conceded, internal Republican polls are detecting no voter enthusiasm for broad tax cuts.

Poised to exploit

The White House is eager to exploit the vacuum.

"Republicans have the obligation to show they can govern. That's their burden," Sosnik said. "They also have an obligation to show they stand for something."

And Republicans may have to comply. In the absence of a united agenda, aides admit that the GOP has little choice but to embrace many of Clinton's proposals, including subsidies for school construction, stricter standards for managed care companies, tax breaks for long-term health care costs, and increased funding for elementary and secondary education.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico has already vowed that Republicans will not let Clinton outdo them on education spending.

"The ultimate paradox in all this is that having been thoroughly embarrassed by the impeachment process, the political center is once again defined by Bill Clinton," said Donald Kettl, director of the LaFollette Center for Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin. "It's remarkable in every way except that it's completely consistent with Bill Clinton's career."

In some cases, the president has helped Republicans by moving toward their positions, for instance on deploying a national missile defense system and increasing military spending.

But in other cases, Republican desire to accommodate the Democrats is stunning. A conservative House aide said GOP leaders are even considering a raise in the minimum wage, a move that only months ago seemed unthinkable.

"Clinton has run so far to the center, it's hard to distinguish him from a Republican," said Michael Scanlon, a spokesman for House Republican Whip Tom DeLay, one of the architects of the president's impeachment.

Only weeks ago, GOP leaders labeled Clinton a tax-and-spend liberal after his State of the Union address.

But popular as they may be, Clinton's initiatives will merit only footnotes in the history books. Democratic leadership aides say not even his proposal to use the budget surplus to shore up Social Security would establish a legacy for the Clinton White House.

Contrast with Reagan

Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, agreed. Ronald Reagan was considered a transformational figure, he said, remaking the image of the Republican Party, delivering the country from the post-Watergate malaise, and ushering out the Cold War. Clinton, in contrast, often appears as the defender of a Democratic past: the safety nets of Social Security and Medicare that were woven by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

"Shoring up Social Security for two generations would be no small thing. People would appreciate it," Jacobson said. "But it's maintaining the legacy of FDR rather than changing the times we live in."

Truly sweeping changes in Social Security and Medicare could help create a Clinton achievement for the history books. But despite all the pledges of cooperation, the difficulty of the task, lingering hard feelings and a looming presidential election make success the longest of long shots.

"I think that there is strained relationships. There's some hard feelings over this whole process," House Speaker Dennis Hastert allowed last week. "But I think the best thing for us to do is to move forward and get to work."

Unfinished business

Those sentiments may not last. "I'll let people with much more magnitude, a much greater sense of charity put this behind them," Carville said last week. "But I've still got some stuff pent up inside me."

And Carville warned that the GOP may not be ready to leave Clinton in peace. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has found no proof of wrongdoing in the Whitewater land deal, has said Clinton had nothing to do with the firing of the White House travel office aides, and has found that FBI files were not misused by the Clinton administration.

A House special committee impaneled to investigate the transfer of missile technology to the Chinese also found no evidence of wrongdoing by the president, and even House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde could find no impeachable offenses in the 1996 fund-raising scandal.

But none of these investigations has officially ended, and Republicans find new allegations to examine virtually every week, whether they involve a secret recording system in the White House or Clinton aides shading the truth under oath.

On Thursday, House impeachment prosecutor Chris Cannon accused Clinton of character assassination for pledging to restore the Democrats to control in the House, and he hinted darkly that Starr's firing was imminent.

Hyde has said he will continue to examine the Lewinsky affair and its offshoots through the Judiciary Committee's examination of the Justice Department.

"It will never be over," Carville predicted. "If I thought anyone was sincere in moving this behind us, I'd probably go along with it. But I'm only a fool. I'm not a complete fool."

On the other side, even the president's own pollsters are advising Democrats to thwart major legislative initiatives, then bury Republicans in 2000 under the charge that they can impeach a popular president but are incapable of governing the nation.

White House aides insist there is no conflict between Clinton's promise to work with Republicans and his pledge to restore Democratic control to Congress.

Party vs. history

But Republicans sharply disagree, especially on the big issues. Already, said Indiana Republican Rep. David M. McIntosh, a leader of House conservatives, Republicans fear Clinton will take them three-quarters of the way toward dramatic Social Security restructuring, then abandon them and use the Social Security issue to secure the White House for Al Gore and the Congress for his party.

"There will be deep, deep distrust on any type of commitment to work together," McIntosh said. "No one believes him anymore."

Indeed, many Democratic strategists are virtually imploring Clinton to do just that.

"As a matter of historical legacy beyond what he's already done, the single most important legacy he could leave is Al Gore in the White House and a Democratic Congress," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "That's more important than passing a particular form of HMO reform."

But leaving Washington the way he found it -- with Democrats controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- would not be much of a legacy, cautioned Pitney, the political scientist.

"The $64,000 question is, will Bill Clinton be interested in his legacy or a Democrat majority after he's president? Only he knows," said Bill Paxon, a former House member and one of the architects of the GOP's sweeping victory in 1994.

"Bill Clinton time and again has turned his back on his allies in Congress," Paxon added. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if he did it again."

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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