Being Late Is Just as Bad as Never for Boxer

Throughout her career, Barbara Boxer has used outrage the way a satellite uses booster rockets: to launch herself into ever higher orbit.

Whether raging against a profligate Pentagon or leading the feminist backlash against sexual harassment, Boxer has made high dudgeon a hallmark, a principal means of political advancement.

Last January, Boxer and fellow California Sen. Dianne Feinstein were front and center when President Clinton stood in the Roosevelt Room and delivered his infamous eye-squinting, finger-wagging denial of sex with "that woman."

Yet when the president finally told the truth about Monica Lewinsky seven months later, Boxer scarcely peeped while Feinstein roared with an outrage heard 'round the world.

Wearily, she tries to explain. "Dianne felt the president was talking to her directly. I didn't take it that way," Boxer said over lunch with Washington reporters last week. "People respond in different ways."


Faced with a battle-of-her-lifetime reelection fight against Republican Matt Fong, Boxer has lately been performing her own version of the Clinton two-step. Just as the president has been trying for nearly a month to persuade the nation he really is contrite, Boxer has been trying to persuade the media and her constituents that she really is mad.

But around Washington, it isn't so much what you say as when you say it. Which is probably why the words rang hollow when the junior senator took to the floor last week and denounced Clinton's actions as "immoral"--three weeks after fellow Democrat Feinstein's very public rebuke and days after Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman's much-publicized morality sermon.

"It was wrong and indefensible," said Boxer, looking for all the world like she wished she were talking about anything else.

"Too late," said political analyst Larry Sabato. "She did not do what Dianne Feinstein had the good sense to do as soon as Clinton admitted he lied. It doesn't take any courage to speak out at this point."

Boxer did say at the outset that Clinton's conduct was wrong. But she was hardly the irate crusader who marched up the Senate steps in defense of Anita Hill or demanded former Sen. Robert Packwood's head on a plate for sexual harassment.

When it came to crimes against women, Boxer had set a high bar for outrage. But when it came to Bill Clinton's affair with a 21-year-old intern, it was Feinstein who vaulted over the top.

Indeed, the two senators seemed to have switched roles: Feinstein, usually the moderate, measured one, was so peeved after Clinton's Aug. 17 mea-sort-of-culpa that her staff had to persuade her to sleep on it and cool down. The next morning, word that her trust in the president was "badly shattered" was on fax machines coast-to-coast as the former San Francisco mayor became one of only two Democrats to break ranks with their party.

Boxer, the passionate firebrand known to get worked up over such topics as the proper temperature for frozen chicken, was unusually contemplative and even-tempered, having this to say about Clinton's behavior: "The president was wrong. Now let's move on."

But in some ways, their reactions were completely in character. The moderate Feinstein has been a willing thorn in the president's side before, and has never hesitated to stray from her party's reservation.

The more partisan Boxer has rarely wandered from the flock and has the added complication of being related to the Clintons (Boxer's daughter is married to Hillary's brother).


If Boxer loses her Senate seat, she may very likely have Clinton to thank. To win, Boxer needs to define the stark differences between herself and Fong on issues that run from abortion rights to taxes to gun control to school vouchers.

But the scandal has lately drowned out those issues in the largely single-minded media. And Boxer's reticence has given traction to Fong, an otherwise not-ready-for-prime-time candidate.

"What else has Fong got?" said Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "He's a grossly underfunded, uncharismatic candidate who is looking for something. The reason he is a first-tier candidate is because of Boxer's weakness."

Still, Boxer says she has no plans to distance herself from the troubled president, asserting that she has lost trust in his private morality but not his public policy agenda.

Even as other other Democratic candidates have begun to avoid Clinton like a virus, Boxer continues to embrace him. One reason, it appears, is that in California the Clintons still draw sizable crowds to the $1,000-a-plate dinner circuit.

Hillary Clinton, one of the senator's most prodigious fund-raisers, is scheduled to appear at a Boxer event next week. And the president called her just a few days ago to ask how the campaign was going.

"I said Mr. President, I really need to raise some funds. That's where it's at right now," Boxer recalled.

He promised to be there in October.

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