Clinton Political Liability Limited in the Jones Suit

President may be doing enough right to escape major woes from sexual-harassment case.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

On a personal level, President Clinton has been extraordinarily embarrassed by the reignited sexual-harassment lawsuit filed against him by Paula Jones.

But he is not mortally wounded politically, say political analysts, commenting on the Supreme Court's ruling yesterday that Ms. Jones may pursue her suit while Clinton is still in office.

As long as the economy is humming along, the nation is at peace, and his popularity ratings remain comfortably high, Clinton still has the clout to negotiate with Congress over the budget and other matters.

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"But if the economy starts unraveling, and more comes out on Whitewater, there could be a piling-on effect," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Schneider also surmises that Clinton will not have to face trial as long as he is in office. His obvious first choice would be to settle the suit with her privately, an option she has refused in the past. Failing that, Clinton's lawyers can delay the case for years. "There are too many legal angles that can be used," says Schneider.

Still, the Jones case poses a major distraction to the president, and siphons attention from the momentous issues he is handling. While in Paris yesterday for the signing of the document enlarging NATO, the No. 1 question on the minds of the traveling American press was not about NATO or, say, the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, but about Paula Jones.

"This is one that cannot be dismissed as just a tabloid story," says Doug Bailey, publisher of the Hotline political newsletter.

The longer the Jones case stays in the news - regardless of the outcome - the more embedded it becomes in Americans' picture of Clinton.

"It all inevitably becomes more fodder for late-night comedy shows," says Mr. Bailey. "The nature of our TV society is such that this runs the risk of dominating the remaining years of his term."

One irony in Clinton's situation is that because the news has been relatively good of late - or of little interest to the public, such as the political fund-raising scandals - journalists are scrambling for copy that they believe will be of public interest. The Jones case fits the bill.

Bailey notes that Clinton deserves some credit for the good news, and that the tarnish on his legacy as president could deepen as the Jones saga continues.

Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington, also touts Clinton's successes, even since the second term began: His ability to forge agreements with Republicans, with the Russians, and potentially with the Chinese.

"So what this [the Jones case] does is personalize his presidency in a way that is damaging to the president," says Professor Wayne.

The revived Jones case also adds to the challenge faced by the president's legal and public-relations teams, which in the past have stone-walled and issued blanket defenses, says Wayne.

"We'll see how Bowles and McCurry deal with this," he says, referring to White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and press secretary Mike McCurry. "It will show their maturity."

THIS summer, the House of Representatives and Senate will both hold hearings into Democratic fund-raising practices from the 1996 elections which will likely embarrass the White House. The Whitewater case, a broad inquiry into the Clintons' failed real estate deal and other personal financial dealings, is also simmering as special prosecutor Kenneth Starr considers possible indictments.

From the perspective of Congress, the dynamic over dealing with the president really changes little, despite his legal problems. As Republican members discovered on the eve of last year's elections, it is just as much in their interest to enact legislation as it is in the president's interest.

"I don't think anyone the president negotiates with is expecting any leverage from the president's legal problems," says Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Furthermore, the Jones case has now been around for several years, so it's not as if the Supreme Court's ruling has brought to light any new information about the president's conduct. Jones sued in 1994 and wants $700,000 in damages.

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