Just minutes after a federal jury in Little Rock handed down convictions on May 28 in the first Whitewater trial, Bob Dole's operatives put out the word to Republican spin doctors: Lay low. That may seem like odd advice from a Presidential candidate eager for any scrap of good news. But when Republicans bite their tongues, Democrats had better watch out.
The GOP has no intention of ignoring the biggest political break to come its way all year. It's just a matter of timing. Dole partisans have decided to hammer Clinton with the "character issue"--but closer to Election Day. "If you use the issue too early, people get sick of it," says a GOP operative. For now, Republicans are counting on the media to keep Whitewater before the public. "The verdicts speak for themselves," notes the usually loquacious Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour.
Indeed, the 24 guilty verdicts in a loan fraud case against Clinton's former business partners and successor as governor could change the campaign's dynamics. The jury's decision reenergizes a dispirited Dole campaign that was agonizing over prospects of a Clinton blowout. At the same time, the verdicts mark a triumph for Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who has new momentum to pursue the Washington phase of an investigation that's lapping ever closer to the front door of the White House.
On Capitol Hill, where Whitewater hearings were in danger of turning into political show trials, Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and his pals on the Senate Whitewater Committee can claim new credibility. Says GOP consultant Kathleen C. Severin: "A conviction takes the sting out of the charge that they are politically motivated." D'Amato is wrapping up his probe into Bill and Hillary Clinton's Arkansas business dealings and a possible coverup. The panel is likely to issue a summertime report highly critical of White House conduct.
For Clinton, the convictions mean an annoying distraction from the agenda he wants to emphasize--his support for education, the environment, and Medicare. "Instead of talking about real issues, a lot of us are doing interviews and talk shows on Whitewater," groans Democratic strategist Lynn Cutler. "We would prefer to talk about something positive and relevant."
DAMAGE CONTROL. Now, the Clintonites are scrambling to distance the President and First Lady from the convictions of Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker and Clinton's former partners in the Whitewater land deal, James and Susan McDougal. White House aides note that the Clintons were not accused of any wrongdoing. And Democratic strategists emphasize that several jurors found the President's videotaped testimony credible but based their verdicts on damning documents.
The White House won't be able to wish Whitewater away. In the next month, Starr will start a new trial against two Arkansas bankers accused of financial irregularities in connection with Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial race. Once again, the defense is likely to call Clinton as a witness. Meanwhile, Starr is still pursuing the Whitewater land deal, events surrounding the death of former White House counsel Vincent Foster, the scandal in the White House travel office, and possible criminal attempts to obstruct his inquiry.
So far, the Little Rock convictions aren't likely to set off a flood of public outrage against Clinton. "It'll help tighten the race, but it won't tip the balance," says one GOP strategist. But at the least, the drip, drip, drip of Whitewater embarrassment is sure to dampen the euphoria at Clinton headquarters--and end the drought of good news for Bob Dole.