How The Reno Decision Could Really Hurt Republicans

When Attorney General Janet Reno refused on Dec. 2 to seek a special counsel to investigate fund-raising telephone calls by President Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore, Republicans were ready. Now, the GOP will launch new attacks on "Clintonite corruption" and paint the Attorney General as a pitiful patsy who should resign.

In the near term, Republicans have a hot issue that should energize Clinton-haters and make for good political theater. The GOP will summon Reno to congressional hearings and try to make her squirm as FBI Director Louis J. Freeh explains his support for an independent counsel. And the controversy is good for Republican fund-raising as the Democratic Party struggles to dig out from under a $12 million mountain of debt. "Their goal is to punish, torture, and discredit the other side," says senior White House adviser Paul E. Begala.

But that get-Clinton strategy could backfire over time, complicating both the GOP's legislative agenda and its 1998 election prospects. The public is fed up with gridlock and bickering, and when party leaders resort to harsh partisan sniping, GOP approval ratings plummet.

Indeed, despite aggressive Republican efforts to tar Clinton, he is riding high. According to an Oct. 27-29 Gallup poll, 70% of Americans describe the Clinton Presidency as a success; just 25% deem it a failure. Voters appear to have made up their minds about the gravity of Administration ethical lapses, so continued GOP attacks look like piling-on. "Most Americans want government to go ahead and govern," says American University political scientist James A. Thurber.

Some GOP advisers also worry that anti-Clinton blood lust could distract from the party's '98 legislative agenda--which includes tax cuts, legal reform, and school vouchers--and lead it to take unpopular positions. That's already happening to the patient's bill of rights put forward by the President. Despite its emerging popularity, Republicans have been unable to resist savaging it as son-of-health-care-reform. "Republicans so dislike Clinton that it clouds their judgment," says party strategist William Kristol. "They should be attacking liberal Democrats on the issues, not him personally." The real danger for Republicans is that their 11-seat House majority could be jeopardized by another showdown with the President.

SMOKING GUN. So to avoid at least the appearance of rabid partisanship, GOP leaders plan to focus on the internal dispute between Reno and Freeh. Their smoking gun: a scathing memo Freeh wrote outlining his reasons for naming an outside prosecutor. Wasting no time, House Government Reform & Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) has called the Attorney General and FBI chief to square off at a Dec. 9 hearing. "We need to resist making this a partisan spat and stress that it's the Administration fighting with itself," says GOP pollster William D. McInturff. But clearly not everyone is singing from the same hymnal. "The message is, the Attorney General will not enforce the laws of the land," thunders Representative Bob Barr (R-Ga.), who is pushing for Clinton's impeachment. "This raises very serious questions about her competence to remain in office."

Taking on Reno could be risky, however. The Attorney General may be the most popular member of Clinton's Cabinet, especially among women. And she can dish it out as good as she gets when hauled to the Hill's hot seat.

To succeed in their carefully concocted strategy, Republicans must maintain a level of restraint that usually eludes them and try to rein in critics like Barr. If they descend again into pure Clinton-bashing, the man on the phone in the Oval Office may wind up with a bigger grin than he's already wearing.

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