After each fall, a comeback

The second in a three-part series. Today: co-opting the GOP agenda and fighting for his own survival.

For Clinton aide Michael Waldman, April 7, 1995, began routinely enough. His former college roommates were in town, and he was engaged in an ego-boosting perk familiar to generations of administration aides: showing his friends around the White House.

They had lunch in the executive branch cafeteria. They poked around the West Wing. Then they peeked into an exclusive bit of real estate - the chief of staff's outer office. That's when things began to get a little strange.

President Clinton himself was on CNN that very minute, giving a big speech before the National Association of Newspaper Editors in Dallas. Mr. Waldman knew the subject of the address was supposed to be education, an issue Democrats felt they could use to distinguish themselves from Speaker Newt Gingrich and his allies, the newly ascendant House Republicans.

But Mr. Clinton wasn't talking about education at all. Instead, he was explaining how he could work with the House GOP leadership on its "Contract With America" agenda. "That's odd," Waldman said.

He peered into Vice President Al Gore's office. Staff there were staring at their TV screen, jaws dropped, while Clinton ticked through the contract, listing what he could support, what he couldn't, and what he would change.

"I was not elected president to pile up a stack of vetoes," Clinton said.

For many Americans - indeed, for most of the president's advisers - this moment was their first clear look at the disarming political tactics Bill Clinton would use to deal with congressional Republicans for years to come.

Rather than fight the GOP directly, Clinton decided to outflank it. He would take some of their issues for his own, while discarding others. He would attempt to appear reasonable, while portraying his opponents as extreme.

This centrist course of "triangulation" reestablished Clinton as a national force in the wake of the GOP's 1994 election gains. It also often drove House Republicans to distraction. But even as they grumbled in the cloakrooms, many in the GOP recognized a master at work. Mr. Gingrich himself has referred to Clinton as "the best [political] tactician since FDR."

Indeed, one of history's most lasting memories of this president may be his political acumen. Even his critics concede that when it comes to the skills of his trade - poll reading, issue framing, media spinning, speech giving - Bill Clinton is the Tiger Woods of modern American politics.

If he weren't, he might not have survived. The Monica Lewinsky affair and impeachment presented Clinton with a dire crisis, largely of his own making. A less adept politician might have been forced to resign, or been removed by the Senate.

Perhaps history's judgment will be that Clinton's darkest hour most clearly revealed his strengths, as well as his weaknesses - and showed how these two sides of his personality were inextricably linked.

"Clinton was never so good as when he used his skills for his own survival," says Al Felzenberg, presidential scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Clinton's gift for political gab was apparent from the opening days of his campaign in 1992. His war-room called him "the Natural" for his ability to connect with small crowds in the diners and legion halls of New Hampshire and other early-primary states.

But after his election, Clinton found that these skills did not guarantee a successful presidency. Far from it. After two years of administration missteps and perceived lurches toward liberalism (remember the healthcare plan?), the GOP swept into power in Congress in the midterm elections of 1994.

Enter a new political geometry. With GOP revolutionaries on the rise, the president secretly turned to a longtime consultant, Dick Morris, who had helped revive Clinton's career following a gubernatorial defeat in Arkansas. Mr. Morris - who also worked for Republican clients - argued that Clinton could govern successfully if he embraced GOP issues, but on his own terms.

To do this, the president would have to distance himself from both Republicans and the congressional wing of his own party - hence the "triangulation" tag. Eventually Clinton brought his senior staff in on the Morris discussions. Most were initially skeptical of this political Euclid and feared a conservative double agent in their midst.

Clinton did it anyway. The move marked a clear shift in his governing style - in fact, many aides now see the change as a break between what were almost different terms in office. It alienated Republicans, who felt he had stolen their ideas. It alienated some Democrats, who felt he had abandoned his principles. But, measured by his reelection and job-approval ratings, it worked.

Not that triangulation was original to the Clinton administration. Some political analysts and historians say it is simply centrism by another name. Other presidents have tried it - Richard Nixon, for instance. Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and issued wage and price controls, two very un-Republican actions.

"Triangulation was vastly overspun. In fact, it was a very straightforward bow to realism and centrism, done with remarkable skill by Clinton," says presidential scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

What made the move unique in Clinton's case was the fact that he was a Democrat, say others. Most modern presidents of his party have hewed more closely to the partisan line. "This is not the way other Democratic presidents have made their mark," says Allan Lichtman, an American University historian.

Of course, one big reason Clinton's move to the center worked was because it reflected real beliefs. He had long promoted himself as a New Democrat who believed that government should help people help themselves, as opposed to hand out money. Triangulation fit with his vision of a "third way" government that provides opportunity while the public takes on responsibility.

Political analysts say it's precisely through this traditionally un-Democratic approach that Clinton made his greatest mark on domestic affairs - signing a sweeping welfare-reform bill, attacking the budget deficit, and ushering in a new era of free trade.

In the end, triangulation was not only good policy, but great politics, says former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, one of the original in-house skeptics. For instance, if Clinton had not decided to publicly favor a balanced budget in the summer of 1995, he says, the president would not have had the standing to outlast Republicans in the famous budget battles that shut down the government later that fall and winter.

"Looking back on it, it was important to kind of checkmate the Republicans on the balanced-budget issue," Mr. Panetta says. "If they were advancing it, and we were advancing more red ink, they would win the argument."

Instead, Clinton stole their issue, and won a second term.

* * * The president wanted to talk to Dick Morris, urgently. The White House paged him twice in the space of 15 minutes, and when the consultant finally called back, Clinton said, "I didn't do what they said I did, but I did do something."

It was the morning of Jan. 21, 1998, and Clinton was referring to media revelations about his relationship with a young intern named Monica Lewinsky. Mr. Morris, who had learned hard lessons from his own messy sex scandal, suggested that Clinton turn to the country, admit wrongdoing, and ask forgiveness.

"What about the legal thing?.... You know, Starr and perjury and all that?" Clinton asked, according to Morris's later grand-jury testimony.

Morris suggested this was not a legal process, but a political one. He cautioned the president not to get trapped in a rigid posture of denial, as Nixon had.

But Clinton was still skeptical about coming clean, so Morris volunteered: "Why don't we poll it?"

The consultant felt sure a survey would show the public granting the president some slack. But his polling results indicated it would only go so far. When he got back to the president late that night, he said, "They're willing to forgive you for adultery, but not for perjury or obstruction of justice."

Well, Clinton concluded, "we just have to win, then."

Before the year of impeachment, the president's political prowess was directed mainly toward winning policy battles, as well as gaining reelection so that there would be more policy battles to fight. Despite a GOP-controlled Congress, he was able to chalk up two fairly productive years - signing welfare reform, telecommunications reform, and a minimum-wage increase in 1996, and reaching a historic balanced-budget agreement in 1997.

But in 1998, as it became clear the Lewinsky matter endangered his presidency, his political skills were turned almost entirely toward his own survival. If nothing else, the country witnessed a display of self-preservation politics unmatched in scope since Watergate.

Take Clinton's use of polls. The president had long relied on polling to test prospective policies, and even the words and symbols used to describe them, to a greater extent than any of his predecessors. But during the impeachment crisis, poll data may have shaped his actions to the exclusion of some moral considerations - guiding the president in lieu of any internal compass.

Similarly, Clinton's considerable intellect was channeled to his defense in a way that at times offended even his supporters. His parsing of simple words in a legal deposition ("that depends on what the meaning of 'is' is") seemed, at best, evasive, and at worst, out-and-out obstruction of justice.

The president's defense also produced a certain amount of collateral damage. Many of his staff had to hire expensive attorneys and pay for them out of their own pockets. The media's access to the president was greatly circumscribed, replaced by briefing-room spinners and preemptive attempts at shaping public opinion, such as the release of a 73-page "pre-buttal" to the impending report of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

Clinton biographer David Maraniss maintains that impeachment revealed as never before Clinton's political and personal strengths and weaknesses. Yet he also argues that the president's strengths are his weaknesses, and vice versa.

Indeed, what some might call stonewalling and delay others might judge as perseverance and fortitude. As the impeachment process ground toward Clinton's eventual Senate acquittal, the president threw himself into his day job with vigor. He wrangled with Republicans on the budget, pushed hard for a peace agreement in the Middle East, approved the bombing of Iraq, and continued preparations for his State of the Union address.

Over and over, he made use of the bully pulpit of the presidency, telling Americans he was doing the job they had elected him to do, and insisting that his Republican opponents and Mr. Starr were political opportunists who would do anything to get him out of office. In fact, by the time he was acquitted, polls showed that more than 60 percent of Americans basically shared this view.

In a series of exit interviews with the media, Clinton has continued to insist that impeachment was a fundamentally political move and not something that had a basis in principles of the Constitution, or law.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, Americans continue to give high marks to his professional, as opposed to personal, performance. Clinton leaves office with a job-approval rating of 66 percent, higher than the modern presidency's other two-termers: Ronald Reagan (63 percent) and Dwight Eisenhower (59 percent).

Yet despite this high level of approval, historians are already ranking Clinton as just an "average" president. The partisan divisions that impeachment produced made progress impossible on big issues, such as entitlement reform, as well as small ones, like a patients' bill of rights.

In terms of policy, Clinton's tenure will be seen as transitional, not transformational, says presidential historian Robert Dallek. He helped turn the economy around, and kept the country in good shape for the next president - a respectable achievement, but not one to put him up there with Lincoln or FDR.

On the other hand, Americans weren't exactly yearning for monumental change, says independent pollster John Zogby. The president's limited approach to governing - tuition tax credits here, hiring 100,000 cops there - seemed about right for the times.

The nation's 42nd president, concludes Mr. Zogby, "will be remembered as an extra-gifted politician, and a great intellect at a time when Americans didn't demand great things from a president." After a pause, he adds, "He'll also be remembered as personally flawed."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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