For Clinton, a chance to mend legacy

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

From Gennifer Flowers to the second presidential impeachment trial inhistory, Clinton has proved himself to be a political escape artist withoutparallel. But even for the self-described "Comeback Kid," the mission aheadmay be next to impossible.

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

And, despite Clinton's vow to work with his Republican adversaries, thepolitical demands of his Democratic allies -- coupled with lingeringresentments and distrust -- could make progress on the nation's most pressingproblems unlikely.

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

Burying the hatchet is "a good idea for most people. It's good for thepresident. 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 theirbacks, their faces."

The Lewinsky affair and impeachment saga "will always be there," said JohnJ. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College inCalifornia.

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

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

In his budget and his State of the Union address, Clinton laid out anaggressive agenda for a president in his sixth year in office, includingensuring the continued solvency of Social Security and Medicare, linkingfederal education aid to school and teacher performance, and providing taxcredits for long-term health care, the working disabled and stay-at-homeparents.

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

If he holds firm, any legislative accomplishments can be framed asDemocratic victories -- while defeats can be be attributed to GOPpartisanship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The White House is eager to exploit the vacuum.

"Republicans have the obligation to show they can govern. That's theirburden," Sosnik said. "They also have an obligation to show they stand forsomething."

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'sproposals, including subsidies for school construction, stricter standards formanaged care companies, tax breaks for long-term health care costs, andincreased funding for elementary and secondary education.

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

"The ultimate paradox in all this is that having been thoroughlyembarrassed by the impeachment process, the political center is once againdefined by Bill Clinton," said Donald Kettl, director of the LaFollette Centerfor Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin. "It's remarkable in everyway except that it's completely consistent with Bill Clinton's career."

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

But in other cases, Republican desire to accommodate the Democrats isstunning. A conservative House aide said GOP leaders are even considering araise 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 aRepublican," said Michael Scanlon, a spokesman for House Republican Whip TomDeLay, one of the architects of the president's impeachment.

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

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

Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at SanDiego, agreed. Ronald Reagan was considered a transformational figure, hesaid, remaking the image of the Republican Party, delivering the country fromthe post-Watergate malaise, and ushering out the Cold War. Clinton, incontrast, often appears as the defender of a Democratic past: the safety netsof Social Security and Medicare that were woven by Franklin Delano Rooseveltand 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 legacyof FDR rather than changing the times we live in."

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

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

Those sentiments may not last. "I'll let people with much more magnitude, amuch 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 inpeace. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has found no proof of wrongdoingin the Whitewater land deal, has said Clinton had nothing to do with thefiring of the White House travel office aides, and has found that FBI fileswere not misused by the Clinton administration.

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

But none of these investigations has officially ended, and Republicans findnew allegations to examine virtually every week, whether they involve a secretrecording system in the White House or Clinton aides shading the truth underoath.

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

Hyde has said he will continue to examine the Lewinsky affair and itsoffshoots through the Judiciary Committee's examination of the JusticeDepartment.

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

On the other side, even the president's own pollsters are advisingDemocrats to thwart major legislative initiatives, then bury Republicans in2000 under the charge that they can impeach a popular president but areincapable of governing the nation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The $64,000 question is, will Bill Clinton be interested in his legacy ora Democrat majority after he's president? Only he knows," said Bill Paxon, aformer House member and one of the architects of the GOP's sweeping victory in1994.

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

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