The Folly Of Making Clinton's Character An Issue In November

With Bill Clinton boasting a 70% job-approval rating despite Paula, Monica, and Kathleen, you'd think Republicans would give up trying to make his character an issue. Nah. GOP leaders are convinced that carping about White House sleaze can be a winner in the November elections if they just give it time. "That fish has got to be out there for a while before the American people see how rotten it is," says National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman John Linder (R-Ga.).

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other GOP leaders hold out little hope that Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr will give them enough ammunition to launch impeachment proceedings. But they relish the prospect of weeks of hearings that would air White House dirty laundry and, they pray, trigger a wave of public revulsion. Trouble is, the Clobber Clinton strategy could backfire, jeopardizing the GOP's slender hold on the House.

Most Democrats, and even some Republicans, believe there would be plenty of public outrage--but it would be directed at Clinton's tormentors. "The more they spend their time talking about impeachment and Monica Lewinsky, the more they're telling the American people, `We don't care about what you care about,"' says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

PINATA PARTY. Such talk worries some senior Republicans. They recall how Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) shot himself in the foot by going after the President and Hillary Rodham Clinton during hostile Whitewater hearings in 1996. "Republicans are in a bind," concedes a party consultant. "Our base hates Bill Clinton. But to appeal to the middle, we can't appear too partisan." The pragmatists' strategy: Let the press harp on Clinton scandals while Republicans stick to issues such as tax cuts and Social Security reform.

For now, however, Clinton bashers are prevailing. GOP pollster Frank Luntz is egging them on, arguing that Clinton's popularity is broad but thin. "People almost insist on saying they like him even though they really don't like him," Luntz says. "He has the most defensive kind of popularity that I've ever seen in politics." Luntz's only caveat: Avoid impeachment talk, which voters view as reckless.

But instead of acting circumspect, many Republicans are throwing a Clinton pinata party. Senator John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), a White House aspirant with strong Christian Right support, has labeled the President a sexual predator. House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) says Clinton should resign if the sex-and-coverup allegations are true. And some GOP candidates are already running TV spots that tie their Democratic foes to "Clinton sleaze."

SHOW TRIALS. The trick, the partisans contend, is to keep the attacks focused on Clinton's legal missteps--not his sex life. Emboldened by an MSNBC poll in which just 27% of respondents thought Armey had gone too far in blasting the President, the House plans to hold hearings on an array of alleged scandals. Among the possibilities: the White House "enemies list" and the Teamsters-Democratic Party campaign-cash connection.

These show trials will surely be boffo with the GOP faithful. But most voters seem willing to overlook Clinton's foibles as long as the economy keeps putting extra cash in their pockets. "In '96, Democrats morphed Republican candidates into Newt Gingrich, and it didn't work," says a senior GOP strategist. "If Republicans try this with Clinton, the result is likely to be the same." Or worse. If Republicans appear too mean-spirited, their desire to make Clinton an ex-President could make Gingrich an ex-Speaker instead.

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