Some Clouds Clear for Clinton

The Paula Jones case may yet return, but political risk to the president has fallen sharply.

The dismissal of the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit may mark the beginning of the end of the grinding legal problems that have come to dominate the middle years of President Clinton's second term.

Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright's surprise decision in the case doesn't settle important questions about the president's personal character. It may yet be overturned on appeal, and it has no direct bearing on independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr's ongoing investigations.

But as a practical matter it is an enormous legal victory for Clinton. Even if an appeals court revives the case, it likely would not go to trial until the end of his time in office was drawing near. By then Mr. Starr's probe would presumably have been long ended.

Thus the possibility that already-hesitant congressional Republicans will now begin impeachment proceedings against a popular chief executive is almost zero, analysts say.

"The decision by Judge Wright will now make it more politically difficult for Republicans in Congress to carry through with impeachment proceedings, no matter what Judge Starr sends to them," says Larry Clayman, chairman of Judicial Watch, Inc., a legal group that has sided with Jones.

After all, the president can now point to a legal ruling which supports his position that Paula Jones did not have a case. That may inevitably reinforce the current conclusion of a majority of the public that Starr has spent too much time and money on a politically motivated probe.

Meanwhile, the president's approval rating remains high as he presides over a country in good economic shape.

"Legally, Ken Starr can continue with his investigation," says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. "Politically [the dropping of the Jones case] kicks the stuffing out of Ken Starr's operation. Potentially, that is the fatal blow to the public's willingness to accept an ongoing, seemingly endless grand jury investigation into Clinton's alleged sexual and other wrongdoing."

No worry about appeal

Neither do analysts see much danger for the president in the Jones camp's decision to appeal Judge Wright's ruling, or in the various other scandals still in Starr's bag. An appeal is not likely to be resolved in the remainder of Clinton's term, and the Whitewater, "Filegate," and "Travelgate" scandals either lack witnesses or revolve more around Hillary Clinton than the president.

All in all, the removal of the Jones case "is a substantial benefit" for the president, especially in terms of Clinton's ability to get his message across to the American public, says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas.

For instance, when the Monica Lewinsky probe, which grew out of the Jones case, first broke, the president's message on toughness with Iraq was competing with the torrent of media coverage on the new sex allegations.

Now, the president won't have that kind of severe competition. He is "saved from a trial where charges of his sexual peccadillos are raised again and again ... Think what would have happened May 27 [the scheduled date of the trial] if the president were trying to go public with his agenda and the airwaves were filled with Paula Jones," says Mr. Edwards.

The significance of the Jones decision, concurs Democratic Consultant Matt Klink, is that Clinton "can return his attention full time to being president and governance. This will quiet a lot of the uproar."

Agenda war

But this does not mean that the president's agenda, articulated in his State of the Union message, will actually get done.

More money for school construction and teachers, national testing standards for students, reformed Medicare and Social Security are all issues on which Republicans in Congress have very different views from the President. And the difference is all the more pronounced the closer Congress comes to midterm elections this fall.

"Clinton is facing a Republican Congress, which doesn't leave much room to be effective, period. For the most part, there's no way the president can do something [on domestic policy] without Congress. He is left with bargaining and threatening to veto," says Clyde Wilcox, a political scientist at Georgetown University.

"He gave a pretty good state of the union speech and the next day Gingrich and Lott said they'd ignore most of it," Wilcox adds.

Yet the favorable ruling in the Jones case could boost the president's standing with members of his own party. Many Democrats in Congress have been reluctant to come to his defense.

In the end, though, the president, like presidents past, may have little choice but to spend his final years in office mostly out of the office - on the road as statesman in foreign lands.

Staff writers Linda Feldmann and Daniel B. Wood contributed to this report.

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