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A president, more than anyone else in politics, has the power to change the subject. President Clinton demonstrated that truism last week when he cut short the firestorm over his Monica Lewinsky testimony and speech by ordering cruise-missile attacks on suspected terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan.

His actions shifted the focus from his personal behavior to an external threat on which leaders of both parties and the vast majority of the American people supported Clinton's decision.

Without questioning his motives -- and I do not -- the sequence of events from Monday to Thursday of last week proved why it is almost always a mistake to discount the survival powers of a president. Even when his credibility has been badly damaged, as Clinton's clearly has been, there are circumstances he can contrive or exploit that almost compel people to support him.

Those often involve mobilization of public opinion against an unpopular foe -- as Clinton did last week in striking against Osama bin Laden, the man American authorities blame for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

But the fights do not have to be international. A good domestic row can serve the same purpose, and an opposition party-controlled Congress is always a tempting target. In the 50 years since Harry Truman triumphed at the expense of the "good-for-nothing, do-nothing 80th Congress," his example never has been forgotten.

About two hours before Clinton announced the retaliatory strikes, I was sitting in a restaurant in this old, industrial town outside Chicago with Rep. Jerry Weller, the president of the famous Republican House class of 1994. Like all his colleagues, he is acutely conscious that a shift of only 11 seats this November could cost them their majority.

Musing on the fallout from the Lewinsky scandal, Weller said: "I wonder if this will cause the president to take greater risks, to challenge Congress, to use his veto power to force a shutdown of government and divert the voters from his own problems. He might pick a couple popular issues and try to rally support for himself."

The scenario on which Weller speculated is hardly new. In the winter of 1995-96, when his job rating was much lower, Clinton forced exactly that kind of governmental crisis. He convinced the public he was fighting to save Medicare from the new GOP majority on Capitol Hill, and saddled the Republicans with blame for the shutdown. It was a key step in his rehabilitation and eventual re-election.

There is no shortage of issues he could use. Almost every appropriations bill now working its way through Congress contains provisions obnoxious to Clinton. Measures that commanded strong popular support when he introduced them in last January's State of the Union Address -- expansion of Medicare, help for school construction, curbs on tobacco -- have been shelved by Congress. He could easily find a pretext for vetoing the bills that would keep the government running beyond the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year and demand that Congress stay in Washington, rather than go home to campaign.

The Republican plan to meet this challenge is twofold: Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson is already airing ads telling voters Clinton will be to blame if the government shuts down. And GOP leaders plan to respond to vetoes of individual appropriations bills by passing a measure to keep all federal departments operating at current levels -- and daring Clinton to reject it.

It could become a high-stakes gamble for both sides. Clinton's job approval is high -- 12 points higher than it was when he went into that 1995 showdown with Congress. But seven in 10 voters in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll say he is not honest or trustworthy. Would they believe he was fighting for their welfare, not his own survival?

On the other side, the Republican Congress stands far better with the public than it did in November 1995, when the shutdown fight last loomed. Then, 68 percent disapproved of its job performance, while only 27 percent approved. Now, it's 55 percent to 39 percent approval.

Add in the uncertainty over the timing and contents of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report to Congress, and you have the makings of high drama this autumn.

Washington Post Writers Group

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