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PEACE: THE NEXT STEP | NEWS ANALYSIS

After Budget Deal, Mideast Pact Cements Clinton's Political Clout

Leadership: He leaves diplomatic stage for election fund-raiser having proved he's still a potent player globally and domestically.

October 25, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After more than a week of intense diplomacy, President Clinton returned Saturday to the political stage, all the while touting the successful outcome of the Middle East peace talks, prodding Israelis and Palestinians to do more and pledging a continued U.S. role.

"We're not out of the woods yet. The agreement still has to be implemented," he said at a fund-raising reception in Beverly Hills for Democratic congressional candidate Janice Hahn.

To the extent that Clinton was central to the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, his diplomatic work at Maryland's Wye River Conference Center demonstrated this tenet of American political life in 1998: The president still is very much a player on the world stage.

Likewise, the final passage of the new federal budget Wednesday, which left many conservative Republicans in Congress howling, was the work of a president--impeachment threat notwithstanding--whose political authority at home remains considerable.

With the ink on the Mideast peace accord barely dry, Clinton made a beeline for California's campaign trail, where he was scheduled to attend four fund-raisers in a 24-hour period Saturday and today and was expected to bring in $2.1 million in campaign contributions.

And this is a president widely perceived as hanging on to the Oval Office by his fingernails?

"Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter would have given their left arms to be as weak as Bill Clinton is now," said Leo Ribuffo, a professor of history at George Washington University. "Unless your frame of reference is George Washington or Franklin Roosevelt, it makes no sense to call Bill Clinton a weak president."

That does not necessarily mean Clinton's diplomatic coup will help Democratic congressional candidates in the Nov. 3 elections.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff argued that, just as Clinton's personal problems do not attach themselves to hurt Democratic candidates, neither will his international accomplishments help them.

More to the point of Clinton's own political standing, however, is whether his latest achievement might affect the impeachment process.

Some Democratic allies on Capitol Hill argued Saturday that the Middle East accord, following on the heels of Clinton's demonstration of clout in the budget negotiations, severely undercuts one argument for impeachment: that the controversy over his illicit relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky has undermined Clinton's ability to govern.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, recalled his trip in August to the Middle East, where he assured worried foreign leaders that Clinton's ability to deliver for them would not be hampered by the Lewinsky scandal.

"I said to [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak on his porch in Alexandria, 'Watch the fight over the budget,' " Biden said. " 'I bet the president will beat the living hell out of [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich. Then you can judge.' "

Indeed, Biden argued, if Clinton had not done so well in the budget talks, the Middle East agreement might not have come together.

But this does not mean Clinton's recent successes will make the impeachment inquiry go away.

Said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee and one of only 31 Democrats who voted with the Republican majority to authorize an open-ended impeachment inquiry:

"The impeachment process will go forward, but it [the Wye agreement] makes more difficult both getting the articles of impeachment [through the House] but particularly in getting a conviction [in the Senate]. That wasn't likely before the Middle East peace agreement, and it's less likely now."

Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said Clinton's diplomatic coup should have no effect on whether the panel approves articles of impeachment.

"I'm sure it will help in keeping his job-approval rating high, but it's really a separate issue," Hutchinson said. "Our responsibility is much broader. The allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice are really specific legal charges, in contrast to a political concern about the ability to govern."

Clinton himself has linked his Lewinsky-related political problems and the peace talks.

Speaking Friday night at a church gathering in Washington, the president said he considers his commitment to ending violence in the Middle East a step in his "personal journey of atonement."

Yet whatever positive political bounce Clinton gets from his role in brokering the Wye accords could fade quickly.

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