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CAMPAIGN 2000

Clinton Disputes Bush's Portrayal of Economy

Politics: President says it's 'absurd' to suggest his policies weren't vital. In interview, he says the GOP is wrong on all the issues.

August 14, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Previewing his speech tonight to the Democratic National Convention, President Clinton dismissed as "absurd" Republican George W. Bush's charge that the administration deserves little credit for the nation's strong economy.

"Their strategy seems to be to hope people think it all happened by accident," Clinton said in an interview with The Times. "You know, when [Republicans] had the White House for 12 years, they took credit every time the sun came up in the morning."

In a wide-ranging conversation, Clinton simultaneously stressed his desire to surrender the limelight to Vice President Al Gore and demonstrated an intense interest in all aspects of the campaign to succeed him. Indeed, Clinton systematically challenged virtually every principal argument the Republican ticket has offered on its behalf.

Dismissing Bush's promise to change "the tone in Washington," Clinton maintained that Republicans deserve most of the blame for the partisan hostility in the capital. And he said he considers Bush's repeated promise to restore "honor and dignity" to the White House a direct criticism of his behavior meant to "divert" attention from the election's real choices.

Bush recently denied that his words are aimed at Clinton.

But Clinton said, "Yes, he's talking about me personally; no, I don't take it personally.

"It's what they have to say. They're wrong on economics; they know the people don't agree with them on crime; they know the people don't agree with them on turning the environment over to the polluters. . . . So they basically can't win on any of the issues that affect the American people, so they have to divert the attention of the American people."

Looking forward, Clinton said it was unlikely he would play any significant role in a prospective Gore administration. "I told Al once that if he got elected president, my main goal would be to stay out of his way--because America can only have one president at a time," Clinton said. "But if he wanted to talk to me, I'd be glad to talk to him."

Clinton added he would be "glad to go" if Gore just wanted to send him to funerals of prominent people.

Still, Clinton said that after the presidency his primary focus would be "to find ways that I can use all the experience and the knowledge that I've acquired to be an effective citizen of America and to do some positive things around the world in ways that absolutely do not interfere . . . with [the next president's] performance of his responsibilities."

Clinton was alternately reflective, contrite and combative in discussing his impeachment and the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal--events that still loom as a critical backdrop to the election.

Many commentators interpreted Gore's selection last week of moderate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) for his running mate as an effort to signal both his policy continuity and personal distance from Clinton. Asked if he shared that interpretation, Clinton said:

"Well, I think the far more important thing is the continuity of policy. I never believed, not for a minute, that the American people were going to, in effect, vote against their own interests and their own values by holding Al Gore responsible for a personal mistake I made."

House Was 'Wrong' on Impeachment

Clinton said that Lieberman's sharp personal criticism of him in a September 1998 Senate floor speech--where he condemned the president for his relationship with Lewinsky--"was right. And that's what Gore said."

At the same time, Clinton continued to insist that the GOP-controlled House had been "wrong" to vote for his impeachment. After citing polls and constitutional experts who had supported his position, the president quickly sought to shift the focus away from the events that nearly capsized his presidency.

"But that's all behind us," he argued. "The American people need to vote, in my judgment . . . based on what kind of future they want. And if they believe that I have kept faith with the commitments I made, and that we implemented those things and they had a good impact on the American way of life and our future . . . I think we'll do fine."

In the interview, Clinton expressed complex sentiments about Bush. On the one hand, the president insisted that he had not meant to demean the Texas governor when he recently told a Democratic fund-raising dinner that Bush was seeking the presidency partly because his "daddy" held the office.

"First, let me say I was surprised by the reaction," Clinton said. "It isn't true that I was trying to get him. And I think it came probably because sometimes when I'm talking without notes I lapse into Southern talk. We don't mean anything disparaging by 'daddy.' . . . I think if I had said 'father,' it would have had a different resonance with them."

And Clinton maintained that in those earlier remarks he was not trying to suggest that "being governor of a state, [a] big state for five years, is not enough to be president."

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