How Oklahoma Plays Inside the Beltway

Clinton gets boost as focus shifts to thwarting terrorism

AS with any profoundly important event, the devastating bombing in Oklahoma has begun to alter the American political landscape.

After a solemn weekend fulfilling his role as the nation's ''lead mourner,'' President Clinton has charted a multitrack approach to handling the aftermath of Oklahoma: Emphasize calls for swift justice for the killers, promote enhanced ability of law enforcement to monitor paramilitary groups, and assail the ''loud and angry voices'' that are whipping up antigovernment sentiment.

On the first point, the nation stands united in its horror over the April 19 attack on the federal building, as reflected this week in a resolution sponsored by Oklahoma Republican Sens. Don Nickles and James Inhofe condemning the bombing.

On the second, an enduring debate about balancing public protection and civil liberties has resurfaced as Congress prepares for debate on antiterrorism legislation. In a subsidiary theme, opponents of gun control are reportedly retooling their strategy to lift restrictions on gun ownership.

And on the third, politics is breaking out all over. Even though Mr. Clinton hasn't blamed conservative talk radio overtly in his blandishments about the dangers of antigovernment rhetoric -- perhaps in an effort to maintain the high ground -- conservative talk-show hosts have taken offense and entered the fray.

The bombers were ''a fringe element that is always going to be out there,'' radio host Oliver North said Tuesday. ''They're not encouraged by talk-show hosts....''

For now, Clinton has earned high marks for his performance. The latest CNN-Gallup Poll shows that the president's general approval rating rose from 47 percent on April 21 to 58 percent on April 23.

But Clinton's aides are clearly concerned that he not be seen as overtly politicizing a tragic event. After his veiled attack on conservative talk show hosts, delivered in a speech to the American Association of Community Colleges in Minneapolis on April 24, top deputies were reportedly insisting that he was not targeting right-wing talk radio in particular. They reminded reporters of his calls for public civility in his state of the union address.

Politics are a part

Still, it would be naive to think the president -- or any politician -- will divorce politics from anything he or she does. ''We have to keep in mind that a person can be an elected official with responsibilities and a person concerned with reelection,'' says Michael Traugott, a political scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey. ''It's not crass to consider both.''

Another presidential contender, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, has gotten free air time from the Oklahoma attack, including a prime-time appearance on CBS's ''60 Minutes'' Sunday night. As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is holding hearings this week on the bombing, Senator Specter has been a relevant congressional figure on the matter.

For Clinton and the Democrats, the long-term result of Oklahoma is open to debate. Some analysts foresee a permanent shift in the political calculus, with conservatives on the defensive about their antigovernment, antigun-control rhetoric.

They also see a Clinton who has found a steely resolve and an issue on which to show some spine. Compared with his initially confused response to the federal attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, Clinton sprang into action on the Oklahoma bombing. But conservatives are coming out fighting, rejecting insinuations that a civilized discussion about the need to reduce the role and size of the federal government -- a point Clinton himself has made early and often -- could have led fanatical anarchists to launch an attack against innocent people.

Only short-term boost

Clinton's public-opinion boost over Oklahoma is not expected to translate into a permanent improvement of his overall approval ratings, political analysts say. Consider, for example, President Bush's high approval ratings from the Persian Gulf war and his ultimate defeat for reelection. Still, it is ironic that a day before the Oklahoma bombing, Clinton was pleading his own relevance in a press conference that two out of the three major networks declined to carry, points out Prof. Paul Light of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

''After a couple of weeks, we'll be back to business as usual,'' he says.

On gun control, a Republican effort to repeal a ban on assault weapons was already an uphill battle, given strong public support for the ban. Guns are only tangentially linked to the Oklahoma incident: The man arrested in the attack and other suspects are tied to right-wing paramilitary groups that amass weaponry.

The political battle shaping up over proposed antiterrorism legislation is not likely to split along Republican-Democratic lines but rather between those who want to crackdown on extremist groups and those who advocate strict protection of civil liberties.

''We're concerned that the legislation would sweep in so many things already a crime under state law that it couldn't help but be selectively applied against unpopular groups and individuals,'' says Gregory Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union, speaking of a bill proposed before the bombing.

Clinton proposes enhancing the powers of federal law enforcement to infiltrate suspected terrorist groups, such as increased Federal Bureau of Investigation access to motel registers, phone logs, and credit card records. Critics fear a return to the days when political activists were harassed by the government even when not suspected of any crimes.

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