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President Clinton - On the Attack

Now we know what it takes to make Bill Clinton give a short speech. It's actually a rhetorical achievement, I suppose, to pack that much contrition (well, a dollop), self-pity (a healthy dose) and rage (a flood tide) into a four-minute address.

It's the rage that raises all the questions. Not that Ken Starr isn't a suitable target of rage, but surely the president didn't view his Monday-night broadcast simply as an opportunity to vent. Allowing for the possibility that Starr & Co. asked him some outrageous questions on Monday afternoon, and that Hillary may well have insisted that he go on the attack (and one can only surmise that the president's ability to say no to the first lady has been at a low ebb in the last few days), even so, the decision to attack Starr had to have some element of calculation behind it.

For, rather than attempt to mea culpa the issue to death, Clinton delivered a speech that could not have been better calibrated to inflame the Republican right. The most volubly indignant pols on Monday night were Missouri Senator John Ashcroft and Murphy Brown nemesis Dan Quayle, GOP presidential aspirants who both demanded Clinton's resignation. To the Republican primary electorate whom they are already trolling for votes, it is impossible to be too rabidly anti-Clinton, and Monday's speech all but guaranteed that a major wing of the party will be baying even more loudly for impeachment. Clinton knows that nothing strengthens him more than the disdain in which most Americans hold his enemies. Pursue this at your own peril, he seemed to be telling the Republicans on Monday night. Heed the zealots in your midst, and risk estranging all those swing voters who only want this to be over.

Having already taken from the Republicans all the wedge issues they traditionally wielded against Democrats (crime, welfare and the like), Clinton now threatens to turn himself, or more precisely his possible impeachment, into a wedge issue, splitting the GOP right from the moderates the party needs to hold power. One can imagine the Democrats attempting to frame a fall campaign around the question of the pursuit of the president: Return the Republicans to control of Congress, and you get another year of Lewinsky hearings. Give Congress over to the Democrats, and the public's business - HMO regulations, tobacco legislation, campaign- finance reform - will actually be done.

The problem for Democrats, of course, is that Clinton may well turn out to be a double-edged wedge. Should Starr present plausible evidence of obstruction of justice, they're the ones who will be scurrying for cover. Even if the evidence doesn't amount to much, there's still a danger that just enough voters will think Clinton just morally shabby enough to keep the Congress in Republican hands.

Of course, every poll in the wake of Clinton's speech shows about two-thirds of the public supporting an end to Starr's investigation, and under 30 percent calling for the president's impeachment or resignation. And yet, it's been hard to find a Democratic pol who appreciates the defiance that Clinton showed on Monday night. There was a way, if not to end this ordeal, then at the very least to diminish it, one member of Congress told me, and the president elected not to do that. There was the Orrin-Escape-Hatch, and the president declined to climb through it. The political recklessness in the president's remarks plainly inspires nervousness, and some anger, in his fellow Democratic pols, already uneasy about his characterological recklessness. They would prefer an election that turned on education spending and patients' rights: Even if they don't retake the House, they won't get blown out of the water. But with his speech, the president made it more likely that the election will turn on Clinton and his critics, and since it's impossible to say who it will turn on more, the risks are now far greater.

In the end, the president insisted on Monday night, this is all a private matter. The potential public consequences of that insistence fills his party with dread.


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