HAS President Bill Clinton's moral authority been so shattered that he will find it difficult to govern the nation during what remains of his time in office? The White House was obviously conscious of such an area of doubt. For, one moment he had retreated to Martha's Vineyard en famille
to lick his wounds after the humiliating testimony before the grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky case. The next, he orders a sudden barrage of Tomahawk Cruise missiles against "suspected terrorist camps" in Sudan and Afghanistan. Is domestic trouble, in this case as domestic as you can get, behind the global muscle-flexing?
The chief executive's extraordinary five-minute confession before the nation that he "misled" the country and his family in the Monica Lewinsky issue, on another front, was also followed by a damning second testimony by Lewinsky—where she reportedly contested Clinton's 'sanitised' version of the sexual relationship. As the steamy sex scandal embroiled Clinton's presidency in an image-battering media war, speculation swerved around to whether the synchronised bomb strikes were a mere diversionary tactic, designed to scotch the thesis of a weakened executive.
Moral authority is about trust and credibility, say presidential scholars. It is a central element in effective leadership—in business, social, and religious life, as well as in the affairs of the nation. Critics initially claimed that the Lewinsky affair would strip Clinton of his moral authority, emasculate him both at home and abroad, and render him ineffective for the rest of his term—that he will have little heft with Congress, and no stomach for confrontation with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and other US foes. "I think Clinton's effectiveness as president is over. His moral authority is gone," said Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri, one of the president's harshest critics.
After the bombings too, Clinton-baiter Sen. Arlen Specter (R) broke with the congressional tradition of backing the president in times of military action to say the timing was meant to "focus attention away from his own personal problems". That is an opinion the public may come to share but not at the moment. Initial opinion polls show most Americans who watched Clinton's televised confession over the Lewinsky affair are satisfied. In an ABC News poll, 59 per cent of those interviewed felt Clinton had said enough about the situation. Another 53 per cent in a CNN/USA Today poll said they were satisfied with Clinton's explanation.
Still, it's far from clear that Clinton's testimony will defuse possible impeachment proceedings. As Lewinsky deposed a second time, sensational stories about the president sending the former intern coded messages of solidarity emerged. The New York Times reported that the president wore a Monica-gifted gold-and-navy necktie at a White House ceremony on August 6, the day Lewinsky gave her first testimony. According to some reports, Lewinsky presented Clinton the tie on his 50th birthday, saying that when he wears the tie she would know he was always there with her. If the president was trying to send a message to Lewinsky, it didn't work.
Clinton also sent his DNA sample as an evidence following a request by Starr. Clinton agreed to provide the sample to see whether it matched the alleged semen stain on a navy blue party dress that Lewinsky gave for examination to the FBI. But ABC said it was not clear when Clinton had given his DNA sample. Critics said they were offended by the second part of the president's admission—an attack on the length and cost of Starr's probe. "I don't think this is behind him. It's going to go on. It's a miserable situation," says Robert Dallek, presidential historian.
Clinton may find his negotiating power on Capitol Hill waning, say political observers. But post-bombing, lawmakers from both parties rallied behind Clinton—and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) even called it the "right thing to do". Controversies have often chipped at the president's standing with Congress. It happened to President Richard Nixon after Watergate, to President Gerald Ford after he pardoned Nixon, and to Ronald Reagan after Iran-Contra.
"A lot of the power that the president has is moral authority rather than actual legal authority," says Rep. Peter King (R) of Sea-ford. "You can always go over the heads of Congress to the people. I think Clinton will have lost the power to go to the people."
THE scandal might force Clinton to use his veto pen more, political observers predict. They foresee a possible legislative stalemate or a Republican-tinged outcome on gun control, tobacco money, spending bills, patients' rights, and a host of other issues still in the ring this year. "I think he's finished in terms of being an effective policy-maker," said pollster John Zogby. "The president doesn't have sufficient popularity to drive the issues against the congressional majority. So what we've got is gridlock."
Some New York Democrats disagree, however, saying the public's demand for a backto-issues agenda will strengthen Clinton's relationship with Congress. "I think there's a thirst among American people to now move on and talk about issues that affect their lives, so I think in fact the president will be able to move legislation," says Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of Brooklyn, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which would preside over any impeachment proceedings. Working in Clinton's favour is his ability to bounce back. Says a White House aide, "He's like the Energiser Bunny. He's going to be more frenetic, I'm sure." But still to come is the independent counsel's report, which could persuade Democrats to back away from Clinton, whittling down the president's power even more. His admissions may prompt Democratic voters to stay home in November, jeopardising the number of Clinton allies in Congress, says Republican political consultant Jay Severin.
"As draining as Monday night's admission was for Clinton, now the hard part comes," Severin says, as the president faces possible questions about perjury. "This is now a guy who needs congressional support and never curried it sufficiently before." In fact, Clinton is already reaching out to legislators, especially of his own party, asking them to stay the course.
If Starr's report reaches Congress in mid-September as expected, it could not come at a worse time—just as lawmakers are preparing to adjourn and smack in the middle of the congressional poll campaign. Both parties are wary of the report. "There is a showdown coming," says Rep. Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat and member of the House Judiciary Committee. But Meehan says he does not see grounds for impeachment.
Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, along with Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, would handle any inquiry based on the Starr report. The House would vote to refer the report to the Judiciary Committee, which would then begin a review. Only after such a review would the whole House vote on whether there are sufficient grounds to begin an impeachment inquiry. After that probe, the committee would either vote to drop it or pass a bill of impeachment.
If the House votes to impeach, the full Senate would try the president. A two-thirds vote is required to convict. But it is unlikely the matter would get that far. One outside observer says he would get off with a "slap on his wrist". The White House is bracing itself for what could happen next. During his testimony, the president refused to answer fully some questions, triggering a warning from prosecutors that they might seek to question him again. If they do and Clinton continues to balk, that could reignite a constitutional confrontation. Alternatively, Starr might not question Clinton again, but instead—in his report to Congress—cite Clinton's demurrals as evidence of the president's efforts to obstruct justice.
Outside of the small minority that makes up the rabidly right-wing conservatives, few average Americans want to see the president removed because he lied, under oath, about extra-marital indiscretions. Much depends on how strong an obstruction case Starr builds. Republicans would rather see a weakened Clinton remain in office while Democrats do not want the stigma of impeachment or resignation.
Some of the press that covered Watergate are saying there should be "a sense of proportion". They argue that consensual sex between adults, however outrageous, is not the same thing as organising a secret police operation in the White House and involving the FBI and the CIA in the cover-up of officially sanctioned crimes, which was what Nixon was guilty of doing.
Yet the legal machinery of American government needs to take its course. "Its wheels move slowly. What we are seeing here is both the Constitution and the Watergate-inspired independent counsel law at work," says a Congressional source. "When this crisis is past and its lessons learned, the independent counsel legislation will need to get a very thorough airing."