On the surface, Bill Clinton's second term is off to a strong start. The U.S. economy is chugging along. The President's approval ratings have hit 61%. And Clinton is dominating the Washington agenda with his drives for a balanced budget and additional education spending.
But as veteran Clinton trackers know all too well, any period of soaring Clintonismo is likely to be followed by an abrupt downdraft. Indeed, clouds of scandal already are billowing ominously over the White House.
By spring, the President could be consumed with indictments of associates by Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Clinton also faces new revelations of White House fund-raising improprieties that lead to the Oval Office. And Paula Jones's sexual-harassment suit could for the first time force a sitting President into court.
At a minimum, the scandal fallout could slow the President's political momentum. At worst, the U.S. could be in for a paralyzed Administration that floats lifelessly for the next four years. Says University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato: "This may yet turn into a full-fledged scandal that will diminish the Presidency." The upshot: Clinton would have less leverage with Congress in negotiating a budget deal, filling Administration posts, and setting foreign policy.
For now, voters are in a forgiving mood because they're happy about the economy. "People can't see beyond the high stock market and low unemployment," says Rutgers University Presidential scholar Ross K. Baker.
LITANY. But this tolerant view could change in the wake of new ethics disclosures. The breaking point could come once Starr concludes his inquiry and Senate Republicans launch protracted hearings into allegations that Clinton directed an illegal reelection fund-raising operation out of the White House.
Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who is heading GOP Donorgate hearings, plans to subpoena Democratic Party fund-raising documents to determine if the President or aides violated campaign laws and traded access for fat-cat donations. One charge: White House officials illegally shared a database on 350,000 Democrats with campaign fund-raisers.
Thompson's panel also plans to look into a White House meeting Clinton held last May with more than a dozen bank CEOs and Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig. The execs later donated $332,654 to the Democratic Party. And Thompson will look into whether ex-White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes broke the law by attempting to steer a potential $500,000 gift offered by a Texas businessman to the Democratic National Committee.
The President is still sloshing in Whitewater, too. On Feb. 5, Starr's office said it had obtained important new information from James B. McDougal, the Clintons' former partner in the Arkansas land venture. McDougal was convicted of fraud last year along with his ex-wife, Susan. In an interview in the Feb. 17 issue of The New Yorker, McDougal reversed his trial testimony and said Clinton was present at a 1986 meeting in which an illegal $300,000 loan was discussed. Clinton denied in videotaped testimony that he was at the meeting.
Starr is also exploring whether Clinton associates arranged lucrative legal work for Presidential pal Webster Hubbell, a former top Justice Dept. official, so he wouldn't provide damaging information about Clinton. Among the clients: an affiliate of Indonesian-based Lippo Group, which figures prominently in Donorgate. Hubbell went to prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion.
White House officials dismiss the litany of charges as partisan shots from disgruntled Republicans. But privately, some fret that the steady drip-drip could corrode Clinton's Presidency. Boffo economy or no, these coming woes don't augur well for a productive term.