The Magazine

DARE TO DO NOTHING?

Sep 7, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 49 • By TOD LINDBERG
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For his political opponents, the Monica scandal then becomes one more entry in their catalogue of Clinton horribleness, along with the draft dodging, Hillary's cattle futures, Vince Foster's papers, Filegate, the Rose Law Firm billing records, etc. But that's all. It will no longer have political salience, a capacity to wound afresh. The political culture will have assimilated all there is to know about the affair, much as the stock market is presumed to efficiently assimilate all there is to know about a company. The political culture will reach an assessment of Clinton's remaining strengths and weaknesses, much as the market determines a share price. And most important for the president and his friends, trading in Clinton shares will continue the next day.


And who knows what the price of Clinton will be a year from now? The political market is more volatile than Wall Street. Anyone who continues to beat him over the head with Monica will be seen as carping obsessively. Clinton will have an opportunity to rebuild his reputation. It won't be easy; the final two years of a second term never are. But even diminished, the power of the White House is awesome. He does not lack political skills. And the sheer fact of his survival will feed the legend of the Comeback Kid. Clinton will be in a position to jeer at Republicans in the style of the pop band Chumbawamba: "I get knocked down/But I get up again/You're never going to keep me down."


We are not short of examples of how long a year can be in politics, much less two. Consider Newt Gingrich. A year ago, following a failed coup attempt against him within the House Republican leadership, the speculation was whether he would last in the speaker's office until January or have to go by fall. Now his position in the House is as strong as it has been since the failure of the government-shutdown strategy in 1995-96. He may be Mr. Least Unacceptable; but that is not nothing. He has surely been badly damaged politically by his own ethics problem; but he is still alive, and his poll numbers are rising.


The next problem with the Dare to Do Nothing scenario is its faulty view of the process about to unfold. The mistaken assumption here is that there will come a moment when Republicans, with the cool precision of surgeons, will be able to flick or not flick the scalpel whose blade can sever Bill Clinton from the body politic. There is, in truth, little likelihood of such a moment.


Republicans control the House, but they do not control this process, at least not in the sense that they and they alone can shape it. Democrats matter. And Democrats are subject to political pressure as well. Even if the instinct among Democrats on Capitol Hill were to stand united behind the president and to offer their daughters as White House interns in a show of solidarity (and that is not their instinct), they would still have to explain themselves to their constituents and contend with political opponents out to unseat them.


If this process actually arrives at a life-or-death moment for President Clinton, it is apt to arise only with substantial Democratic support. If the House's sentiment on impeachment were so uncertain that it might not command majority support, it would be foolish in the extreme to bring it to the floor for a vote. And if the sentiment were bipartisan and substantial, it would be difficult not to go ahead with it. While it may overstate the case to say that the process has a life of its own, it is not so easily manipulated against its own momentum.


Finally, there's the Gore factor in the Dare to Do Nothing scenario: Gore the incumbent, Gore the healer, Gore the Invincible. Run away, run away.


Not so fast. This is the biggest mistaken assumption of them all. Note that Al Gore has been hiding lately. That's because he is in a brutal position. Politics doesn't get any tougher than this. Will Bill Clinton survive? If he does, does that mean you should support him? What does supporting Clinton do to your own aspirations for 2000? Is there a way of being supportive without appearing supportive? Or is it better to appear supportive without actually being supportive? Is loyalty a virtue or an impediment? How do you please hard-core Starr-hating Democrats without alienating the middle? Is House minority leader Dick Gephardt an ally in saving Clinton or a rival in the post-Clinton era? How do you know whether you should trust him? When you say "put this matter behind us," do you mean with Bill in the big chair in the Oval or with Al in the big chair in the Oval? How wobbly should Bill be before you kick him over? Would somebody else kick him over for you? Aaaargh.