The Comeback Kid?

Public appearances may not be enough for Clinton to rebound

On Wednesday, Sept. 9, the venerable Council on Foreign Relations in New York was shaken out of its morning coffee by a call from the White House asking whether it could, on five days' notice, host a major speech by President Clinton on the global economy.

That made him the first incumbent president to address the council in its 77-year history. To accommodate him, the council waived its off-the-record rule. "Almost too exciting," said council president Leslie Gelb in a fax message to members left out in the hasty arrangements.

The council event ensured that, on the Monday after the lost weekend of the Starr report, the president would be seen going about the nation's business. Other organizations may be getting similar "exciting" offers as Mr. Clinton moves into Phase 2 of his comeback campaign.

Phase 1, which Clinton almost overdid, was the grand confession, delivered with misty eyes and quivering lip. Phase 2 is get it behind us and back to work.

Will the Comeback Kid, who said 1996 was his last campaign, succeed in this one? Don't count him out. His poll numbers, some of them slipping, are still way up there. There is a roomful of backup evidence to the Starr report for the House Judiciary Committee still to go through. Democrats seem unsure whether backing Clinton or ditching him will hurt them more. Republicans want hearings to keep the issue of Clinton's depravity alive, but seem hesitant about plunging into a full-dress impeachment inquiry.

Among Democrats and Republicans, one already hears murmurs about a middle way -"censure, condemnation, rebuke, or whatever," in the words of Chairman Orrin Hatch of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut who initiated the rebuke idea - lash him to the mast, but don't sink the ship - which now begins to look like an inspiration.

The Constitution says that Congress can discipline its own members, but says nothing about censuring the chief executive. However, the Constitution doesn't prevent it either. The legislators are free to pass a Sense of the Senate or House, or a joint resolution saying anything they want to say.

In 1834, the Senate censured President Andrew Jackson for despotic assumption of powers. Three years later, under control of Jackson's Democrats, the Senate rescinded the resolution.

If a reprimanded president survives, how effective will he be? Clinton's major legislative initiatives - tobacco control, patients' bill of rights, school reform - already lay dead in the water before the release of the Starr report. Now, busy with self-justification, his personal credibility in shreds, Clinton is not likely to be able to sway Congress to do much. He can make command appearances before public-interest groups, but that isn't the same as governing.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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