For the moment the whole focus of the debate around Bill Clinton is should he be president anymore. But equally important is the question can he be president anymore.
On the issue of should he be president, the public is divided, but a substantial majority still feel that Clinton should remain in office. They may think less of him, but they still think a lot of his agenda. Whether that majority holds up in the face of the sordid details that will come out from Ken Starr's investigation is unclear.What might actually influence the public most is the question of can Clinton still govern in any reasonably effective manner. In this regard, I am struck by the depth of anger among midlevel officials who came into government to work for Clinton. In recent days I have heard variations of the following sentiments from them: "I really wanted to forgive the guy and move on. I really wanted to be able to defend him to my friends. But he gave me no ammunition. What he did with Monica said to me that satisfying his own sexual urges was more important than accomplishing his own agenda, because he was obviously ready to risk his whole agenda for that. I know Ken Starr is awful, but I just can't think of the president the same way anymore."
Indeed, it is hard to listen to what your president is saying when you can't even look him in the eye, and right now there are an awful lot of officials and lawmakers who just can't look this president in the eye.
It's not that they wanted to see the president cry in his nationwide address. It is not that they wanted to see him beg for mercy. It is that they wanted to see him do everything possible to be able to govern again and pursue something close to the agenda that enlisted their support in the first place. They wanted him to draw a clear line between how he behaved before and how he intends to behave in the future - even though it may be fanciful to believe that he could ever change. But instead of drawing a line between who he was and who he intends to be, he just underlined his old self - blaming others, never quite apologizing and showing little sign that he recognized that his misbehavior had created a problem, not just for his family, but for everyone who served with him and believed in him.
Unless Clinton can repair that damage, it is going to paralyze his ability to govern, whatever Starr does. Look at last week: The U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden was an open-and-shut case. All the official experts agreed that retaliation was warranted and necessary. Nevertheless, the U.S. retaliation was questioned, at home and abroad, as possibly having been motivated by the president's need for a diversion.
That tells me that even the most necessary things Clinton will do during the next two years will be challenged as never before. And it tells me that the voluntary things he chooses to do - the legislation and foreign policy initiatives he puts forward that are not open-and-shut cases but rather his judgment calls, the hard calls - will be that much more difficult to accomplish, with his allies keeping a distance and his opponents more skeptical than ever. Saddam Hussein has again halted all U.N. inspections. How would the country react if tomorrow Clinton announced that his judgment was that we must now bomb Iraq?
Restoring even a small degree of credibility is crucial for all those out there who would prefer to put this affair behind the country because there are simply more important problems to deal with. For all those who voted for Clinton because they didn't want to see a ban on abortions, or have their public school system gutted by vouchers or distorted by school prayers. For all those who want to see campaign finance reform, education reform and Social Security reform. For all those who care about programs like Head Start and welfare reform. For all those who preferred a philandering Clinton over the second-rate Republican alternatives. For all of them, Clinton needs to do whatever it takes to prove that he can still be president, if it is not too late.
Because to have Clinton without any hope for Clintonism, well, that's not a pretty picture. He alone is just not worth the trouble anymore. His supporters, indeed a majority of Americans, were always ready to overlook the failings in the man because of the virtues of the agenda. But if there is no hope for the agenda, what need is there for the man?
New York Times News Service