Can Clinton Hold The Center?

It won't be easy--particularly if the GOP gains in November

In a packed auditorium on Sept. 14, a glittering crowd of high-powered business leaders, bankers, academics, and media types saw the return of the old Bill Clinton. Gone was the gnawed-lip pose of abject contrition, an expression Americans have come to know well amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Regained was the earnest voice of the conciliator and determined gaze of a global leader. For 34 minutes, the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York saw a President at the top of his game and, if his remarks were to be believed, on top of the world again.

It is a vision the White House hopes to project again and again in coming weeks to counter the frenzy fueled by Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on Presidential misconduct. Buoyed by polls that show two-thirds of Americans approve of Clinton's job performance, White House strategists know that the appearance of a functional Clinton Presidency is crucial to his survival.

But is a revival of the feisty, factoid-spouting Clinton possible? Or has scandal so undermined his moral authority--and political power--that he'll be unable to make a dent in the national agenda?

For much of his tenure, Clinton dominated the middle ground, carving out compromises and artfully blending Democrats' legislative compassion with Republicans' steely desire for fiscal restraint. Now, "his ability to command the center is weakened," says Samuel Popkin, a University of California at San Diego political scientist. Adds a Democratic Hill aide: "I don't think Bill's going to be doing much triangulating [between left and right] anymore. He'll be trying to make people happy."

That could mean a different path for U.S. policy. With Clinton in eclipse, Congress could wind up in perpetual deadlock as liberals and conservatives battle for supremacy. Democrats will likely push left, demanding that the President stow any talk about "the sensible center." Translation: a stronger push for measures such as reform of managed care and greater resistance to initiatives such as privatizing Social Security.

Republicans, mindful that Clinton's escapades have religious conservatives in a fury, will be less inclined to compromise. "Clinton is the Antichrist to the right," says one Clintonite. "New Democracy just got a lot harder."

The prospect of prolonged partisan head-banging troubles many executives. Says James W. Breyer, managing partner at Accel Partners, a Palo Alto (Calif.) venture-capital firm: "The crisis has hindered [Clinton's] ability to [make] economic policy." David Wyss, chief economist for Standard & Poor's DRI, fears policy paralysis during a lengthy impeachment process: "This could be going on for months at a time when the global economy is falling apart."

On the other hand, business leaders point out that the most important economic policy players are still in the game. "The U.S. is in the fortunate position of having [Federal Reserve Chairman Alan] Greenspan and [Treasury Secretary Robert E.] Rubin," says General Motors Corp. Chairman Jack Smith. "There's tremendous confidence in them by the business and financial community."

Still, there are some jobs only the President can do. And Clinton's immediate task is navigating the next few weeks, when Republicans send him bills to fund federal agencies. To fire up the Right for November, they'll attach symbolic proposals, such as curbs on environmental and job-safety rules. After a round of vetoes, GOP leaders concede they'll relent to avoid the kind of disastrous government shutdowns they provoked in 1995 and 1996.

LAME OR DEAD? Another game of chicken looms over tax policy. Congress is set to enact a five-year, $80 billion tax cut. The centerpiece: a smidgen of relief for two-earner married couples. Democrats oppose the move, preferring to use the surplus to shore up Social Security. To buttress support within his party, the President may have to shelve his impulse to compromise with the GOP and veto a tax cut this year. Next year, Republicans are expected to come back with a plan for a 10% rate cut.

By then, Clinton could be all but irrelevant. If Republicans win big on Nov. 3 or he is mired in impeachment hearings, "he goes from lame duck to dead duck," says GOP adviser Ed Gillespie.

And Social Security reform, which Clinton once thought would seal his place in history, likely goes nowhere. He will still seek a sweeping overhaul. But with doubts about privatization sown by the stock market's tumble, he won't bring many Democratic doubters along. Corporate lobbyists also suspect that any hope for trade liberalization--including fast-track negotiating power--has evaporated until after the 2000 elections. Says Representative James P. Moran (D-Va.): "There's a reluctance to give the guy [negotiating authority] when you are considering whether he should be impeached."

Clinton still hopes to be saved by a formula that has worked before: Republicans overstep and stir public backlash. "It will be a serious mistake for Congress to pick a fight over issues like education and the environment," warns White House policy adviser Bruce Reed. "They'll blink in the end." Adds Democratic strategist Tony Coelho: "His biggest advantage is the Republican right. Time and again, they overreach."

Not this time, Republicans vow. "Look at Newt Gingrich," crows a party elder. "He's been restrained, like he's on reverse Viagra." True. But if discipline among Newt's troops dissolves--Gingrich himself heated up debate Sept. 16, calling Clinton a misogynist--GOP leaders worry that, once again, Clinton could dance out of their grasp.

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