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Whitewater’s Powerful Undertow : Clinton’s Agenda May Be Imperiled

<i> William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN</i>

“I do not believe that the politics of personal destruction is what the American people are interested in,” President Bill Clinton said at his news conference Tuesday. He’s right. Unlike his institutional critics--the GOP and the press--most Americans give a sitting President the benefit of the doubt. They will continue to do so until they are confronted with irrefutable evidence of wrongdoing.

No such evidence has surfaced. So let’s be fair to the President and give him the benefit of the doubt. Whitewater is not Watergate. Clinton, personally, may not be in any trouble. But one conclusion is inescapable: his agenda is.

Remember, the Administration has two tough issues at the top of its domestic agenda this year: health care and welfare reform. Plus the continuing struggle to reinvent government. Plus deteriorating situations in Russia, the Middle East and Bosnia. Plus the possibility of a trade war with Japan. And now Whitewater? They don’t need the aggravation.

Whitewater creates collateral damage. It makes the White House--and by implication, the entire federal government--look foolish and incompetent. That’s Clinton’s defense, after all. As presidential adviser David R. Gergen put it Monday, “There was no cover-up. There was a screw-up.”

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The impression that the federal government screws everything up has been building for 30 years. The number of Americans who say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right--one in five--is already at an all-time low. That view has consequences. Anything that undermines trust in government undermines the Clinton agenda. Why? Because Clinton is out to prove that smart Democrats like him can do something a lot of people don’t think is possible: Make government work.

To which critics reply, “Make government work? They can’t make the White House work.” The percentage of Americans who describe Clinton as an “effective manager” has dropped nine points since January, according to last week’s CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll. Almost 60% of the public say that, when it comes to corruption, they see little difference between this Administration and previous Administrations over the last 25 years.

Whitewater is also taking a toll on White House morale. Just when the economic recovery was under way and the President started moving up in the polls--kaboom! Whitewater lands a blow upside the head. White House staffers are under orders not to empty burn bags and trash baskets until it is determined that the contents do not relate to Whitewater.

Then there’s the diversion effect. “I’m trying to minimize how much time I have to spend on this,” the President said. “This is not what I was hired to do.” Maybe not, but in last week’s poll, a majority of Americans said they considered Whitewater an important issue.

The problem is that the White House has only limited control over the Whitewater agenda. The special prosecutor has a lot more control--as he demonstrated on March 4, by issuing subpoenas to six high-level White House officials. The prospect of testifying before a grand jury concentrates the mind wonderfully. The White House quickly switched into full-cooperation mode.

Republicans and the press also have an agenda. And theirs, even more than the special prosecutor’s, is in conflict with that of the White House.

For Republicans and the press, it’s pay-back time. Republicans remember how congressional Democrats never lost an opportunity to embarrass Ronald Reagan and George Bush--Iran-Contra, Clarence Thomas, Edwin Meese III. The Democrats even held hearings to look into Neil Bush’s financial affairs. So the Republicans are now threatening to hold up presidential appointments and turn Whitewater into a campaign issue unless the Democrats agree to hold public hearings.

There’s an irony here. Back in January, Republicans were clamoring for Clinton to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Whitewater. But Monday, the special prosecutor warned that congressional hearings would “pose a severe risk to the integrity” of his investigation. Witnesses might offer “premature disclosures.” They could demand immunity in return for their testimony. Oliver L. North got just such a congressional grant of immunity during the Iran-Contra hearings. That’s why his conviction on criminal charges was ultimately set aside, enabling him to run for the U.S. Senate today.

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Last week, it was the President--he who originally resisted appointing the special prosecutor--who said, “The whole idea was that we would lodge this inquiry in the special counsel so that the rest of us could go on with our business. The special counsel requested yesterday that (congressional) hearings not be held. I think that is a request entitled to respect.”

It’s pay-back time for the press, too. They couldn’t get Clinton on Gennifer Flowers. Or the draft. Or drug use. Or even Whitewater, when it first came up in the 1992 campaign. Now, maybe they’ve got something on Clinton--and on his wife, too.

The President may want to talk about health care or the Middle East. But all the press will ask him about is Whitewater--and that’s going to lead the news.

It can can hurt the President in another way, too--by pushing down his job-approval rating. That rating, which had been rising with the economic recovery, dropped to barely 50% last week for the first time since November.

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Those numbers matter in Washington, because popularity is power. Members of Congress are all in business for themselves. If a President is popular, they’ll support him because they want to be with a winner. If he starts losing popularity, they’ll abandon him. Even members of his own party don’t want to be associated with a loser. Not in an election year.

Clinton is already facing big problems in Congress. His field commander in the House, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), is facing possible indictment any day now. After 18 terms in Congress, Rostenkowski is fighting for his life in a tough primary this Tuesday. If he is defeated, or indicted, the President will lose an irreplaceable ally. Rostenkowski is one of the few House members who can get things done.

There’s more bad news for the President on the Senate side. Last week, majority leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) announced he will retire at the end of this year. It’s a wide-open race to find a new majority leader--with perhaps half the Democrats in the Senate thinking about running. Mitchell was one of the few leaders who could hold the quarrelsome Democrats together--just enough, it turned out, for the President to get his budget passed by one vote last year. Now the 56 Senate Democrats are bound to start splitting up into factions.

Among House Democrats, the center of gravity is to the left of Clinton. Rostenkowski pulls his fellow Democrats to the center, closer to the President. Senate Democrats tend to be to the right of Clinton. In that chamber, Mitchell pulls them toward the center, closer to the President. Mitchell and Rostenkowski delivered for Clinton. No one who replaces them is likely to be as effective.

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It’s not just the President who’s losing points because of Whitewater. Hillary is, too. Her unfavorable ratings, at 40%, are higher than the President’s. Most Americans now say the First Lady has “too much influence” in the Clinton Administration, up 12 points since last year.

Hillary is not only at the center of the Whitewater controversy. She’s at the center of the health-care debate. She has played a crucial role in mobilizing public support for the Administration’s plan--in fact, her plan. Now Whitewater is turning the First Lady into a controversial figure. If she loses her political effectiveness, she could bring the health-care plan down with her.

It’s worth noting that the Republicans are not in such good shape, either. They retreated to Annapolis last week and couldn’t reach agreement on an alternative GOP health-care plan. They can’t even agree on whether the health-care system is in crisis. The GOP has no heroic figure the party can rally around as the man to lead them into the future (Dan Quayle? Bob Dole? Newt Gingrich?).

And was there just a hint of contempt in Clinton’s voice when he said last week, “The Republicans have decided that Sen. (Alfonse) D’Amato (R-N.Y.) will be the ethical spokesman for the Republican Party in Congress”?

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Nonetheless, Whitewater hands the Republicans an issue. It may not be a scandal they can use to destroy Clinton. But they can use it to bolster their argument that government is part of the problem, and it is unwise to make it bigger and more powerful.

Americans don’t want the government to take over the health-care system and run it like the post office. Or like the White House over the past few weeks.


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