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THE PAULA JONES CASE

Democrats Smiling, Republicans Frowning Over Ruling

Politics: Clinton aides see end of an embarrassing spectacle. But GOP is left more confused about what to do amid the public's distaste on the issue.

April 02, 1998|MARC LACEY and JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The dismissal of Paula Corbin Jones' sexual harassment case against President Clinton on Wednesday boosted Democratic hopes that a politically damaging issue was on the wane and left Republicans more confused over what to do about a subject that many Americans seem to find utterly repellent.

Presidential aides crowed over the sudden end of an embarrassing spectacle that hung over Clinton for months, forced him to answer questions about his sex life and gave rise to the unsettled allegations that he urged a former White House intern to lie about their relationship.

"The president has been vindicated," said Ann Lewis, the White House director of communications. "He said all along that there was no basis for this except politics."

Democrats even had hopes that other sex-related allegations against the president that are still under investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr are now undermined.

Backlash on Starr Seen Intensifying

The public, for its part, has never seemed to find the allegations against Clinton as troubling as his detractors have regarded them.

Wednesday's ruling "will just reinforce the public's desire to see this stuff go away," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "There was already a public backlash against Starr's investigation, and I would expect that backlash to intensify."

But Clinton's critics pointed out that dismissal of the Jones case does not resolve the far more treacherous set of allegations that arose from it, including possible perjury, suborning perjury and obstruction of justice.

"The Paula Jones case was embarrassing," said Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), a Clinton critic. "Where he's really in legal trouble," Nickles noted pointedly, is in the Starr investigation.

Clearly, Starr is now in a more politically vulnerable position, and Democrats are already gearing up for another assault on his motives and the credibility of his inquiry. At the same time, Republicans in Congress are left even more deeply divided over whether the party would benefit by pursuing impeachment against a politically popular president if Starr's investigation concludes he was involved in serious wrongdoing. "It changes a lot of things," said Rep. Mike Parker (R-Miss.). "From a perception standpoint, it's a very big plus for the president. I don't see how you can see it any other way."

Gone for congressional Democrats is an embarrassing legal battle that had become a constant distraction.

"It eliminates an enormous distraction for President Clinton and everyone else to not have to go through this trial," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

Democrats to Avoid Criticism, Experts Say

Political analysts said the ruling would spare Democrats from criticism that they have been hypocrites for not backing Jones' claims of sexual harassment, as they have in other cases.

"The hypocrisy issue has been out there, and frankly there's been some justification for it," said Democratic political analyst Bob Beckel, noting how Democrats supported the women who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Sen. Bob Packwood of sexual harassment but remained silent about the Clinton allegations.

Analysts cited as an example Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who led the campaign in Congress to let accuser Anita Faye Hill testify during Thomas' Senate confirmation hearings and was highly critical of Packwood.

Facing a tough reelection battle against three Republicans this year, Boxer has already been targeted on the issue. One of her challengers, Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Windsor), said he believes there are still enough other allegations to make the issue stick.

Sexual harassment, Beckel said, remains an important issue with moderate Republican working women, who could make a difference in November.

"That pivotal swing group of voters certainly would pay attention to a message that somebody like Boxer was being hypocritical by defending Clinton in the face of a strong legal issue. That's gone now," Beckel said. "What she now can say is this is the legal system at its best, this was an issue decided by a woman federal judge appointed by George Bush and that the issue is over."

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate School, agreed that the dismissal helps Boxer and other Democrats but said "it's not over yet." She noted that the ruling does not directly address the allegations that Clinton had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and then sought to have her lie about it.

"They will not have escaped the really big bullet until after and unless the Lewinsky investigation closes down," Jeffe said. "The reality of it is that [Jones] wasn't the problem for the voters. The problem was, and maybe still is, in being caught in a lie, in being caught in obstructing justice, in being caught in suborning perjury, in being caught in perjury."

Boost in Clinton Ratings Expected

The real political impact may be felt not in election booths but in Capitol Hill committee rooms, analysts said. Clinton's already resilient job-approval ratings will likely get another boost from the news, making any Republican talk of impeachment proceedings even more treacherous.

"The problem is if people count it as a symbol that everything else is going to be thrown out," said Rep. Jennifer B. Dunn of Washington, a junior member of the GOP leadership, as she watched the news on television.

"We still have all the perjury questions and other sexual questions," Dunn said.

Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus and staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this story.

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