At the beginning of 1997, when Bill Clinton had just defeated Bob Dole, and his pursuer Kenneth Starr was visibly failing to pierce the Arkansas omertà – two of the Clintons’ companions in sordid deals sat silently in prison rather than testify – the annual State of the Union speech offered the perfect opportunity to reassert the full authority of a twice-elected President.
In the 1994 Congressional elections, the Republicans had won a majority in both Houses for the first time in decades. In 1996, however, the electors, fearful of a further shift to the right under an all-Republican Government, rejected Bob Dole, giving Clinton a second opportunity to invest his Presidency with meaning. That is exactly what previous Presidents had done in their own post-election State of the Union speeches – take Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ or Reagan’s promise to ‘abolish nuclear weapons’. Not Clinton. Surprising everyone, he offered no grand project, did not claim a mandate for even medium-sized reforms, made no attempt to restart the healthcare debate and failed to preach on any subject at all, even race relations. Instead, he read out a long list of specific programmes, each calculated to appeal to a specific segment of the electorate: taxpaying families with young children, bankable students in higher education, taxpaying handicapped persons, old people with significant capital and long-term care costs. Clinton’s implicit message was that his moral authority, his personal character, did not matter: do not judge me, judge my programmes, they are good for you, no matter what hanky-panky I may be up to. The 1997 speech contained his brief for the defence long before Monica Lewinsky was in the news.
The majority of the members of the US Congress are not easily shocked, but some Democrats and many Republicans depend for their re-election on Christian fundamentalists, a minority in most constituencies but highly organised and very active at election time. They are the ones who compel the Republican majority to oppose abortion, and who disagree with the (diminishing) majority of Americans who still support Clinton because they like his ‘policies’, in particular the happy state of the American economy.
For a time, there seemed to be a way out for Republican leaders in Congress eager to keep a politically paralysed Clinton in the White House without antagonising their most active supporters: fundamentalists believe in redemption through public confession and ‘finding Jesus’. That is why, before the disastrous speech of 17 August, Republicans begged Clinton to apologise with as much visible remorse as he could muster, preferably bursting into tears. It might have been embarrassing, but it would have made it much easier for them to go on studying the Starr report until the last day of the Clinton Presidency.
It was not to be. Having consulted both his political advisers and his lawyers, Clinton evidently decided to listen to neither. Instead, Clinton the President chose to follow the advice of Clinton the lawyer who has never practised, rather than Clinton the superbly talented politician – and everyone knows that a man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client. Only the most subtle legal trickery can be passed off in a nation of lawyers: Clinton’s was downright primitive, and each one of his evasions was exposed in the next day’s editorials and television commentary. Far from being remorseful, moreover, Clinton was visibly angry that he had to defend himself at all, compounding the effect by devoting almost half his talk to a sustained attack on Starr – the one thing that both his lawyers and most of his White House intimates had insisted he must not do (it has been reported that the dissenter among the intimates was Hillary Clinton, always pugnacious, not always wise). The overall result, aside from the harshest possible media reactions – the New York Times editorialists virtually demanded Clinton’s resignation – was to ensure that the scandal would continue after the briefest possible interruption for the Cruise missile extravaganza.
The attacks on the Afghan camps and the Khartoum factory were certainly Monica-related but it is worth pinning down the extent of that relation. Even if Lewinsky was the motivating factor, she affected only the timing of the attacks: both the weapons and the targets were ready long before the bombs exploded in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. By now everyone knows that US Intelligence cannot identify and locate individuals such as Osama Bin Ladin – or, for that matter, the far more visible Saddam Hussein. But while the CIA’s espionage capability is persistently disappointing, the global satellite coverage of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) continues to improve. Anyone who has a scanner attached to his personal computer knows why: each refinement in image-processing software allows more data to be extracted from the same overhead photographs. To identify a camp where weapons and explosives are being used in training, or a suspected chemical plant in Khartoum, is easy for the NRO’s analysts. To connect them with Osama Bin Ladin requires more specific Intelligence that only humans can provide – defectors, prisoners, agents or other people’s spies. Interested foreign governments were obviously helpful. It is no secret that Pakistan has special access to neighbouring Afghanistan, as Egypt has to Sudan. Already some years ago there were indications that Iraq had sent both chemical-warfare equipment and technicians to Sudan, to evade UN inspectors.
The form of the US attack, too, was predetermined. Commando raids are the tactically appropriate way of attacking both terrorist camps and factories, offering the best means of destroying the right things and of capturing useful documents and prisoners. That is the method the Israelis have commonly employed, with much success and occasional bloody failures. But with a domestic public opinion allergic to combat casualties, military chiefs themselves antagonistic to risky commando operations and the President in no position to take chances, raids were out of the question. That left only a choice between manned air strikes by strategic aircraft or the use of long-range Cruise missiles. Cruise missiles are both expensive and limited to fixed targets, but they are now much more accurate than they were in the 1991 Gulf War (the median error is three metres rather than ten) and no pilot risks death or capture – the decisive consideration. With weapons and targets both ready, only the provocation was missing, until the US embassies were destroyed. In the past, Clinton has been notably reluctant to use force, but this time the opportunity to appear before the public as Commander-in-Chief was irresistible. So 79 of the world’s most sophisticated Cruise missiles were employed against a few mud-brick houses and a small factory. Some damage was inflicted, Osama Bin Ladin was turned into a global hero for the like-minded, and Clinton won only a 24-hour respite from his troubles.
The office of President is too exalted for the tastes of a people that famously respects wealth but is disinclined to defer to the high and mighty. To have the benefits of strong government, Americans are willing to have their imperial Presidents – so long as they can vent their resentment by ritually humiliating them. Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter: each had his moment in the mud for one reason or another. Even the ultra-popular Ronald Reagan had to suffer exposure in the Iran-Contra affair, complete with a televised apology. George Bush, the one recent President who avoided any serious investigation or humiliation while in office, was instead punished more harshly in the 1992 election – the voters found him too aloof, much too certain of his right to lead. Had he been humbled at some point, he might have been re-elected. Clinton has ensured himself much more than the usual portion of humiliation.
Until the Starr referral was published, Clinton was in the paradoxical position of being overtly defended by his Republican political adversaries while being covertly attacked by the leaders of his own party. Newt Gingrich declared that impeachment deliberations must be long and complex – so much so that no decision could be reached until 1999. He further volunteered his opinion that impeachment was ‘a very grave step’, i.e. unlikely in Clinton’s case. In the meantime, many Democrats running in the November Congressional elections were silently praying for a powerful Starr report containing new and compelling evidence against Clinton.
The logic of each side was obvious. The Republicans have majorities in both Houses, and so most of their candidates are entering the campaign as sitting members. That is a huge disadvantage when the economy is doing poorly and an equally huge advantage at the present time of prosperity. The one thing that could hurt their chances in November is to be seen as ferociously partisan in attacking Clinton. As for the Democratic candidates, it is a great handicap for them to face Republican incumbents when they don’t have a presentable President. Even before the Starr report was published, detailed analyses of the opinion polls showed that the President was less and less trusted, even as his policy of accommodating the Republican majority in Congress continued to be favoured.
The result was that Democratic candidates who would normally be pleading, begging and lobbying for a pre-election Clinton visit to their districts were instead turning down White House offers for joint appearances. Their voters would still very much enjoy a Clinton visit, but the candidates believe they would be contaminated. And even state and local Democratic Party officials who are not running for Congressional seats this November were dreading the prospect of entering the next Presidential campaign with a thoroughly discredited Clinton in the White House – especially when they already had an almost perfect alternative in Al Gore.
The iron law of American politics is that even when the President is liked and respected, voters favour the opposite type of candidate in the next election. Old Eisenhower was followed by young Kennedy; Ford, who was irremediably tarnished when he inherited the White House from Nixon, was followed by the ultra-clean Jimmy Carter; the youngish moralist Carter from rural Plains, Georgia was himself followed by old Reagan from the big city of the biggest state; the steely and unbending war veteran George Bush, all character and no personality, with a motherly non-political wife was followed by the ultra-pragmatic Clinton, with no identifiable character but lots of personality and an ultra-political wife. It follows that Clinton’s successor will almost certainly be an older, rigidly moralistic ‘family man’ who did serve in Vietnam, with a more reserved personality, and a wife uninterested in politics. Except for his age, Al Gore fits the profile perfectly, being notoriously moralistic and so rigid he is habitually described as ‘wooden’; while his wife’s only recorded public activity was an amateurish campaign against pornographic lyrics in pop music. Gore, too, is now the object of an investigation over his fundraising practices, but the offence was purely technical and nothing hangs on the outcome. If Clinton remains President during the election campaign in 2000, candidate Gore will be placed in an impossible position. To have Clinton at his side during the campaign would send all the wrong messages to the voters, but to keep him locked up in the White House would expose Gore to accusations of disloyalty.
Except for the dwindling band of Clinton ultra-loyalists, most Democratic politicians were therefore hoping for a crushing Starr report. First, it would have forced the Republicans to abandon their safe stance of fair-minded impartiality. Under pressure from the religious Right, Gingrich and his Republican colleagues would have had no choice but to start impeachment proceedings, thus irritating many voters just before an election. Second, a sufficiently conclusive Starr report would have compelled the extraordinarily obdurate Clinton and his even more obdurate wife to give up the White House.
Cunning men were calculating how to benefit from the misadventures of Monica and Bill. But all their calculations were overthrown by two notably uncunning men: the inexorable Mr Starr himself, and Representative Henry Hyde, the very bright but un-Macchiavellian chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has been examining the Starr referral to determine if impeachment is appropriate. Hyde is a loyal Republican of course, but his loyalty to the institutions of government exceeds even his devotion to his own party. At 74, and after a lifetime in the House of Representatives, he will take no orders from Speaker Gingrich or anyone else. Though he is religious in an undemonstrative fashion, what Hyde positively worships is the law. The chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee was not an accidental choice on the part of a man who could have had any committee he wanted.
Starr was to report on four scandals: the original Whitewater bankruptcy; ‘Filegate’ (the possible misuse of FBI background-security files on leading Republican officials that were left in a White House basement by mistake); ‘Travelgate’, the mass firing of White House civil servants in the travel office and their replacement with Arkansas loyalists; and finally the Monica affair. The last is the only one in which Hillary Clinton is not deeply implicated: she was the real decision-maker in the Whitewater deal when her husband was Governor of Arkansas; she hired the political operative who is accused of having examined the confidential FBI files; and she took the initiative in Travelgate. But the Starr report cannot charge her with any actual crime: in law if not in reality she is not a public official, and can only be investigated by a normal prosecutor.
As even tiny tots now know, the Starr referral turned out to be a Monica-only report, with lots of sex, though legally focused on the lesser perjury charge and the potentially lethal obstruction-of-justice charge. Evidently Starr tried and failed to connect Whitewater with Monica by attempting to prove that in both cases the key witness, Webster Hubbell in the Whitewater affair and Monica herself, was to be silenced by an attractive job offer. It is already established that in both cases it was Washington’s leading black lawyer and Clinton intimate Vernon Jordan who arranged the jobs – successfully with Hubbell, who kept silent on Whitewater, very unsuccessfully with Monica who has now told everything. It is also established that Clinton’s secretary went to Monica’s apartment to take back his presents from her.
If Hyde finds that Starr has indeed proved a systematic pattern of obstruction of justice, nothing will stop him from asking the Judiciary Committee to recommend immediate impeachment proceedings. That would sabotage the Republican electoral strategy but the Republicans on the Committee would not be able to resist, and only a few Democrats would stage more than a token resistance. An actual trial by the full House of Representatives remains improbable, however, because Clinton would preemptively resign.
Roughly a third of the members of the Congress are completely secure. The others must fight for their political survival in every election. As the November election approaches, Clinton’s fate depends on the embattled two-thirds of the House of Representatives, which is his collective judge, and the twenty or so senators up for reelection but not safely entrenched. Among unsafe Democratic candidates, the panic is palpable. But the fear of an electoral massacre has had the result of greatly reinforcing party discipline. Like good troops who know that a disorderly retreat is the most dangerous of predicaments, the Democrats have now decided to stick together to defend Clinton tooth and nail unless and until the real Starr report shows that all resistance is futile.
What the world has been told so far is only what Starr found out about Bill and Monica. Still to come is the major part of Starr on Whitewater – not a trivial matter, as many seem to think, given that several Clinton associates were imprisoned for it – Travelgate and Filegate. Starr came under immense pressure to publish the Monica story first and in isolation, but in reality it remains a footnote to his Whitewater report and the attempt to demonstrate a systematic pattern of obstruction of justice with Vernon Jordan in the bagman role. Hillary Clinton, a saintly victim in the Monica case, has a very different part in the three major scandals as their chief protagonist. At the time of writing, nobody knows when the real Starr report will be published but it’s entirely certain that it will damage Hillary Clinton’s reputation, weakening the team further. If there is any persuasive evidence of Presidential misdeeds arising from the three major scandals, Clinton will face immediate impeachment.
The Republican leadership is even now attempting to pursue its original strategy of shielding Clinton in order to damage the Democratic Party both in November and at the Presidential election two years from now. They want the Democrats to face the people with a crippled Clinton in the White House still plagued by journalists waving metaphorical cigars at him. But while the Democrats are resolved to stand as one, pending further evidence, Republican discipline is breaking down. Sam Brownback is the first Republican senator to call for Clinton’s resignation, joining a lengthening list of Republican house members. Their refusal to heed Newt Gingrich’s strategic guidance reflects a deepening split in American public opinion. A majority of ‘bi-coastal’ Americans continue to believe that Clinton is an effective President and that the Monica affair is a private matter. Heartland Americans – some 35 per cent of the electorate – mostly agree that Clinton is effective but now believe that the country’s moral integrity requires the sacrifice of his leadership talents. Not coincidentally, Senator Brownback is from Kansas, a classic heartland state. It now seems inevitable that the Democrats will lose every unsafe seat in heartland constituencies on 3 November, as well as most non-urban seats in bi-coastal America. But Bill Clinton, firmly backed by Hillary, remains determined to sacrifice the Democratic Party in Congress to his own political survival.
In truth, Clinton’s predicament has become little more than a human-interest story. Politically he will remain incapacitated even if he serves every day of his term. The US President has far more latitude to make policy than European prime ministers, because he is not restricted by the consensus of cabinet colleagues with their own following in parliament. The President has no colleagues, his cabinet members are merely his appointees: if any of them oppose him, they can simply be fired. The fact that Congress is often dominated by the other party would seem to guarantee political paralysis, but normally the cohabitation works well. The President can only propose taxes, spending or any other initiative that requires legislation: he sends draft laws up to Capitol Hill which Congress can in theory ignore. But a majority of members in both parties is usually reluctant to oppose the President: after all, everyone depends for their election and reelection on the approval of the same voters who put the President in the White House. In other words, Congress has the dominant hand because it alone can write laws and allocate funds, but the President has unique authority, because he alone was chosen by a majority of voters to lead the country.
Multiple scandals had already badly eroded Clinton’s authority when the Monica affair, his subsequent lies and finally the Starr referral destroyed it, leaving him only with a President’s very limited powers. The American people still do not hate Clinton in the way they hated Nixon, but a President needs more than public goodwill to govern when the rival party controls Congress: he needs the active political backing of specific constituencies to pressure reluctant legislators into approving his policies. The Monica scandal has deprived Clinton of one well-defined slice of his active political support – the feminists and semi-feminist groups which helped him greatly in both 1992 and 1996. Much more serious is the alienation of the legalists in Congress, a large group in both parties, as a result of the fund-raising scandal featuring long-time Clinton Arkansas associates, the Chinese military, an Indonesian tycoon, and the systematic violation of the campaign-funding law. This has unfolded in parallel with the missile-technology scandal, also involving the Chinese as well as a White House much too eager to please two satellite companies, Hughes and Loral, themselves keen to use cheap Chinese launchers which happen to be the same rockets that propel Chinese ballistic missiles. The legalists are outraged by Clinton’s casual handling of the charges arising from these scandals. Moreover, the high-technology industry groups that were supportive of Clinton from the start – they have little in common with traditionally Republican mass-production industries being neither anti-union nor protectionist – are now reluctant to go anywhere near the White House, fearing entanglement in the many investigations underway.
The loss of authority that has stripped the President of his ability to govern is intangible, but the consequences are all too concrete. The now almost forgotten China visit that projected around the world the image of a powerful President is a case in point. To visit foreign countries in more than royal style, with hundreds of followers in attendance (though no businessmen, because of the scandals), is one of the few important things that a President can do without specific Congressional approval. Everything passed off well enough in Beijing but after all the summit meetings were over, the Clintons lingered for a two-day visit to Shanghai with no substantive engagements. Shanghai is an interesting city, but US Presidents normally engage in tourism only after they leave the White House. Clinton was in no hurry to come back, and no wonder. The Congress had just crushed his tobacco legislation, a crucial episode for two reasons. First, it was a very rare attempt by Clinton to set his own course, instead of just accepting whatever was wanted by the Congressional majority, which is what he has done again and again to mask his lack of authority, most famously in the case of Welfare ‘reform’. Second, he failed in a fight that he should have won easily given that his opponent was an industry so widely detested that most Congressmen cannot afford the risk of being seen to defend it.
Even more indicative of the state of the Clinton Presidency was the prompt Congressional repudiation of the only item of foreign policy mooted in the course of the China visit. In Beijing, Clinton had explicitly accepted the Chinese position that Taiwan is only a province of China, with no legal right to its own sovereign government. That is something that visiting Presidents since Nixon had refused to say: they have merely noted that the Beijing and Taipei Governments both assert that China and Taiwan are one country. Clinton’s abandonment of Nixon and Kissinger’s formula was a major concession to the Chinese – and the only one it was in his power to grant, because he lacked Congressional approval for anything more substantive. But as soon as the text of his statement reached Washington, the verbal concession Clinton had made in Beijing was negated by a strong Congressional reaffirmation of support for Taiwan, the Government of which was practically invited to buy more advanced weapons from the US. Nothing infuriates Beijing more than the steady stream of US weapons supplied to Taiwan; nothing proves more clearly that the United States has a ‘two China’ policy no matter what Clinton says.
What weakens the President in both domestic and foreign policy cripples the members of his Administration. They have no political capital of their own, and can do only what the commitment of Presidential authority allows them to do. Not for nothing did Kissinger lavish praise on Nixon for his diplomatic achievements. While Kissinger was travelling the world arranging his controversial deals, Nixon back in Washington absorbed all the criticism, suffered all the attacks inspired by hawkish and Machiavellian policies, and successfully secured Congressional support for everything that Kissinger negotiated. Earlier this year, Madeleine Albright made it known that she would no longer tolerate Netanyahu’s refusal to expedite the Oslo peace process. She insisted on quick progress, threatening unspecified penalties. But Netanyahu, confident of Congressional support, flatly rejected Albright’s ultimatum. There was no battle. Instead Albright stopped leaking threats to the press, renounced any attempt to pressure the Israelis and sat back to wait patiently. It was a humiliating retreat but she had no alternative: Clinton was simply not prepared to antagonise the pro-Israeli members of Congress.
The same thing happened over Bosnia. Convinced that it was essential to arrest and place the two most famous war criminals, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, on trial, the State Department asked the US military to plan a quick snatch of both men. Special Operations Command duly set to work in its own uniquely elaborate way, first to collect Intelligence on every movement of the two targets, then to train commandos for the mission. Millions of dollars were spent, and dozens of officers were kept busy with the planning. But when everything was ready at last, the US Joint Chiefs refused to authorise the mission. They feared casualties, as they always do, insisting that the Serbs could retaliate by attacking US troops in Bosnia. In this case too, Clinton failed to put the pressure on, evidently feeling that as a Vietnam draft dodger he could not afford the political risk of overruling the country’s most senior military officers.
Until recently the leadership vacuum inflicted no damage on the American economy. But now it leaves the US a bystander while the global deflation/devaluation crisis descends into a deep depression reminiscent of the Thirties. Congressional government suffices in domestic affairs but it is ineluctably provincial – all international initiatives require the commitment of Presidential energies, attention and authority. Without them, the Congress will never dip into the large Federal surplus to assist foreign economies in trouble. Nor can a distracted President influence the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates, let alone prevail on European governments to drop their obsessive monetarism to help reflate the world economy. Only the boldest action by the US can turn the economic tide. So long as Clinton remains in the White House, there is no prospect of that.