No Exit From Washington For Clintonites

Treasury Secretary Rubin is the most prominent of those who can't leave without seeming to abandon Clinton

For months, a weary Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin has been wistfully eyeing the exits, according to friends. But he can't find the right time to bolt. The worsening global financial crisis already has forced Rubin to extend his stay. Now, the President's sex scandal makes it impossible to leave without looking as if he's abandoning a sinking ship--a move sure to rattle the markets. "Bob Rubin is trapped," says David J. Rothkopf, a former top Commerce Dept. official. "He'd love to get out, but his departure now would be worse than Monica Lewinsky discovering another dress in her closet."

The Treasury chief isn't the only top Administration official strapped to a deck chair on the listing uss Clinton. White House officials say other Cabinet officers and Presidential advisers are pondering an exodus after the Nov. 3 election. Insiders say they include Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol M. Browner and possibly Health & Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, who rebuked Clinton for his moral lapses. But with impeachment talk rife in Congress, "people will be more likely to stay," says a Clintonite.

That's just as well, because top talent will steer clear of a crippled Presidency. Says Rutgers University Presidential scholar Ross K. Baker: "It's hard enough to get good people toward the end of a viable Presidency." One example: Clinton's inability to recruit a big name to represent him in any impeachment proceedings.

Non-political posts are proving hard to fill as well. Presidential aides say the scandal has hampered efforts to find someone for the Federal Reserve Board, which has had a vacancy for three months. "It's scared off potential nominees," says an official. "People are apprehensive about going through an ugly confirmation battle. Suddenly, a career as a bank senior vice-president doesn't look so bad."

The personnel problem--and the low morale among trapped Clintonites--will make it even harder for a besieged President to craft policies acceptable to a hostile Congress. Certainly, it will be tough for senior advisers to keep their mind on policy when they have one foot out the door. Rubin and Shalala, for instance, would play key roles in Social Security reform next year.

What's more, many top Clintonites are ambivalent about serving a President who deceived them when he denied having sex with Lewinsky. "Rubin is not a Clinton loyalist," says one associate. "He likes the President but thinks he screwed up big time." Still, this source predicts Rubin sill stay a while longer. "He's a Democratic loyalist and isn't going to burn the party now."

Even if the President can convince heavyweights to become nominees, he'll face confirmation hurdles in the Senate. Republicans say Clinton's woes give the gop less incentive to work out disputes over appointments. One casualty may be veteran diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke. His nomination as U.N. ambassador has been snagged over questions about omissions from his financial disclosure report and allegedly illegal contacts with the State Dept.

DROPPING HINTS. Among the few top hands who have signaled they will leave are Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles and top political strategist Rahm Emanuel. Presidential press secretary Michael D. McCurry has already announced his departure. It's easier for White House staffers to split because their replacements don't need Senate confirmation, and few White House aides have the public stature of Cabinet heads. The exception is Bowles, who could be succeeded by his deputy, John D. Podesta.

But even Bowles' departure won't move the markets the way a Rubin resignation might. "Right now, the market is counting on Bob Rubin and Alan Greenspan staying where they are," says economist L. Douglas Lee, who does political analysis for HSBC Securities.

Rubin isn't discussing his plans. But he has been paving the way for Lawrence H. Summers, his deputy, to succeed him. Summers' confirmation, however, is anything but certain. A veteran House Democrat fears the markets "may want someone with more stature." That's why Rubin and his Cabinet colleagues may be on a longer voyage than they want. And it's not exactly a pleasure cruise.

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