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As The Trial Turns

If Clinton's fate becomes a question of guilt, not fitness to serve, watch out.

January 24, 1999|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — So what if Republicans vote to call witnesses at the president's impeachment trial next week? The star witness for the defense has already appeared. During his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, President Bill Clinton didn't argue the facts or the law. He argued, in so many words, that the standard of judgment should be whether a president is fit to serve. He made a powerful case that he is.

Clinton has an uncanny instinct for catching the mood of the country. Right now, Americans are sick to death of the rancorous partisan warfare going on in Washington. It's Bosnia. People are killing one another for no apparent reason. The public looks on it all with shock and dismay. They want somebody to put a stop to the destruction. But it doesn't really touch their lives.

Conventional wisdom has it that voters are going to be looking for leaders next year who are morally pure. Nonsense. They're going to be looking for leaders who are not part of the vicious, pointless war of annihilation. The best politicians understand that. Earlier this month, Larry King asked Elizabeth Dole how she felt about the impeachment controversy. Dole responded, shrewdly, "Larry, I am a sad and distant observer."

Amazingly, Clinton assumed the same posture last Tuesday night. He distanced himself from the controversy over his own impeachment! It was as if he were saying, "Who is this guy Clinton they're all fighting about?"

Clinton reached out to Republicans. Literally. The president offered his hand to new Republican House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). When Hastert got elected earlier this month, he urged Republicans and Democrats to work together in a spirit of civility. "Mr. Speaker, let's do just that," the president said. He also offered Republicans some goodies, like higher defense spending, tax-favored investment accounts and a tax credit for stay-at-home parents.

The president's speech wasn't just something for everybody. It was everything for everybody: tax credits for long-term-care insurance, family leave for small-business workers, tougher education standards, legal action against tobacco companies, more aid to the former Soviet republics to safeguard nuclear materials, a hate-crimes bill, a renewed push for campaign-finance reform, a higher minimum wage, action to preserve green space, a patients' bill of rights, steps to control global warming, measures to promote free trade, tough talk on Japanese steel imports, prescription drug insurance for senior citizens . . . whew!

The president's message? "I want you to listen to me. I'm not going to say this again. I did not have . . . Oops, sorry. I mean I do have an agenda. I may be a lame duck. I may be impeached. But dammit, I can give you a thousand reasons to keep me in office."

It's not a big agenda in the old Democratic sense, like the New Deal or the Great Society. Clinton tried that with health-care reform in 1994 and got slapped down. It's more like George Bush's "thousand points of light." Only Clinton's a Democrat, so they all come from the federal government.

Clinton used the State of the Union speech to save his presidency. Not for the first time, either. After the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal broke last January, he used his 1998 speech to refute the widespread assumption that his presidency was over.

It worked. He got a big bounce in the polls. Only "bounce" is not the right term. The idea of a bounce is, what goes up must come down. But last year's bounce never came down. Clinton's job-approval ratings have stayed amazingly high--in the 60s--for a year, the highest ratings on record for a sixth-year president.

This year's speech may have carried Clinton even higher. Initial poll readings show the president's ratings climbing into the 70s. That's significant, because for months, one-third of Americans have said they want this president out. If the president's job ratings go into the 70s and stay there, it means he's starting to win over his diehard opponents.

Among them: Christian Coalition chair Pat Robertson, who said last Wednesday that Clinton had "hit a home run" with his speech and that the trial might as well be dismissed. "It's over as far as I'm concerned," Robertson commented on his television program.

Last week's speech had another purpose: The president used it to save his legacy. Clinton wants something after his name besides "one of only two U.S. presidents ever to be impeached." When he first took office, Clinton saw himself as the third great Democratic president in this century. In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt started Social Security. In the 1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson created Medicare. In the 1990s, Clinton would guarantee universal health care. That didn't exactly work out. Now he wants his legacy to be that he saved Social Security and Medicare. That would not be an inconsiderable legacy.

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