Clinton’s Choice

Clinton’s Choice

With the impeachment slogfest over, Congressional Democrats, particularly the liberals, once again face the ever-aggravating matter of their thorny relationship with President Clinton.


With the impeachment slogfest over, Congressional Democrats, particularly the liberals, once again face the ever-aggravating matter of their thorny relationship with President Clinton. For months Clinton’s most generous supporters have been left-leaning House Democrats, including Barney Frank and the Congressional Black Caucus. (Two CBC leaders–Maxine Waters and Bobby Scott–refused to support a censure motion during the Judiciary Committee proceedings.)

Recently, at an event organized by Barney Frank, ten progressive members of Congress gathered in a Capitol Hill committee room to blast away at Clinton’s call for an additional $110 billion in military spending. This move is “terribly dangerous,” warned Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan liberal, who had been one of Clinton’s most ardent advocates.

When Frank & Co. finished assailing Clinton’s military budget, a reporter asked if Clinton’s proposed numbers were part of an old pattern of the President screwing his supporters to win over or undercut his opponents. Frank brushed aside the suggestion. But afterward a House aide who works with the Progressive Caucus said privately, “The question was more important than Barney acknowledged. For over a year, the Progressive Caucus has tried to get a meeting with Clinton to discuss a legislative agenda. It never happened.” Not even when caucus members were on the front lines for him? “Never,” said the aide, conveying information that reflects poorly on both Clinton and the progressives.

After rushing to Clinton’s rescue, progressive Democrats are back to square one with the man. In the avalanche of post-impeachment analysis, commentators noted that two courses were available to Clinton: Strive in statesmanlike, bipartisan fashion for legislative accomplishment that might distract from the stain on his presidency, or wage a campaign of retribution, taking advantage of the GOP’s weak standing in the polls and pushing sharply defined proposals in alliance with Congressional Democrats. The former would mean he strikes a deal or two with his Republican foes. The GOP can’t be eager to cooperate with the fellow it decried as a poster boy for moral rot in America, but Republicans require concrete accomplishments as proof that they have done more than pursue a lying but popular President. Thus Clinton and the GOP might conclude that they need each other. In the alternate scenario, Clinton would stand side by side with his Democratic comrades and crusade for a common agenda in the face of GOP opposition–HMO reform, a minimum-wage boost, hell no to any privatization of Social Security. This effort, although not likely to achieve legislative success, could establish a nonimpeachment-related distinction between the parties in time for the next election. If the plan succeeded, Clinton would find vindication in Democratic gains in Congress and continued Democratic control of the White House.

To oversimplify, the choice for Clinton is: Me or my party? A betting person would be smart to wager that he’ll try to have both. Bob and weave, tack and jibe. Republicans may not be able to overcome their distaste for him. “With Trent Lott saying he can’t negotiate on Social Security with Clinton because he doesn’t trust him, you’d think that would push Clinton somewhere–perhaps toward his own party,” says a senior House Democratic aide. “It’s an unspoken hope.” And the GOP has its own deep-rooted internal problems–like whether to raid the Social Security surplus for a tax cut or not. Still, if Clinton decides, say, to yield ground on Social Security privatization in order to craft a compromise with the GOP, unhappy Democrats could pose a problem for Al Gore’s presidential campaign. “Under the surface of Democratic unity, there is much wariness,” says another senior House Democratic aide. “Will he be with us or not? Who the hell knows?”

As Clinton made a post-impeachment quickie trip to Mexico, he and his aides spoke of renewing his presidency in the twenty-three months remaining–as if all had been proceeding brilliantly in the pre-Monica years. But with the trial done, the old calculations of Clinton’s Washington have changed little. After all, the calculator in chief remains the same.

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