Sept. 9, 1998

Clinton's 'Rope-a-Dope' Disaster

By Robert Parry

For nearly six years, President Clinton and his allies have prided themselves on winning -- or at least surviving -- with a political version of Muhammad Ali's "rope-a-dope" strategy.

The Clinton corner's basic idea is to let the Republicans pummel Clinton, while the president only responds with an occasional flurry of counter-punches. Apparently, the Clinton hope is that the GOP will punch itself out and the crowd will carry the battered president away on its shoulders.

At times, Clinton's backers have cited his strong poll numbers as proof that "rope-a-dope" works, that the public is turned off by the partisan Republican attacks.

But those who know their sports analogies might spot a problem right away. Though Ali did rest on the ropes for a couple of rounds during his 1974 title fight against George Foreman, Ali won the bout by going on the attack and knocking Foreman out.

Clinton and his handlers apparently forgot that part of the story.

As the nation heads into the fall elections, Clinton's "rope-a-dope" strategy -- and his disastrous relationship with Monica Lewinsky -- have combined to position the Republican Right closer to their goal of political hegemony in Washington than might have seemed possible a year ago.

Both Republicans and Democrats now expect that an emboldened GOP will triumph over a demoralized Democratic Party in November.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott could well steal away from the 1998 elections with at least 60 Republican senators and a filibuster-proof majority. On the House side, Speaker Newt Gingrich appears likely to expand his narrow 11-seat majority, possibly by 40 or more seats.

With solid majorities in both houses, the Republicans then could pick and choose their Clinton option: either force him from office in disgrace or let him crawl to the end of his term as an object of public ridicule.

The wild card in the political game, of course, is how the Lewinsky scandal will play out with the voters. Initially, the Republicans were cautious about raising the unseemly issue, at least openly.

In poll after poll, the American people expressed boredom and disgust with the controversy. While disapproving of Clinton's personal behavior, they generally were pleased with his stewardship of the economy and the government.

Typical were comments that I heard during a recent trip to western Ohio. Voters cited their satisfaction with the abundance of jobs and the absence of war, concerns far more serious to many Americans than the salacious gossip that obsesses Washington.

But with Clinton’s admission of an “inappropriate” relationship with Lewinsky -- after seven months of denials -- Republicans have begun to introduce direct and indirect references to the scandal into their campaigns.

Simultaneously, fearing adverse political consequences for themselves, many Democrats have begun distancing themselves from the Democratic standard-bearer.

The process is only likely to get worse for Clinton when special prosecutor Kenneth Starr sends Congress an impeachment report packed with X-rated details.

For his part, Clinton can complain that he is facing a moralistic double-standard and a clearly partisan special prosecutor. But Clinton cannot justify his actions, especially in the face of his rhetoric about the need for young Americans to show responsibility in their personal lives.

Any rationalizing of his extramarital sexual behavior could sound like he’s adopting for his new campaign song the Beastie Boys’ number: “Fight for the Right to Party.”

At the start of his administration, Clinton could have given the nation some perspective on impeachment-worthy offenses. He could have demanded honest accountings from Ronald Reagan and George Bush for their crimes of state -- from Nicaraguan contra-drug trafficking to secret arms deals with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, from gross human rights violations in Central America to clandestine negotiations with Iranian radicals behind President Carter’s back in 1980.

Demanding the truth about Republican crimes would have strengthened democracy by giving the American people an accurate account of their own recent history. Politically, it would have put Republicans on the defensive and forced them to justify a long pattern of White House lies.

But Clinton chose the bipartisan option, to protect the reputations of his predecessors, apparently fearing a bruising political battle and sensing that the fight might distract from his domestic agenda.

Clinton joined in concealing the Reagan-Bush crimes. Even recently, the Clinton administration released evidence of Nicaraguan contra-cocaine trafficking but topped the reports with press releases trying to minimize or explain away Republican guilt.

The administration also has shied away from investigating evidence of international money-laundering by right-wing financier, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a Reagan-Bush favorite who advocates the end of democracy and finances the ultra-conservative Washington Times. [See The Consortium, Aug. 24, 1998.]

Beyond protecting his Republican predecessors, Clinton even has honored them. In 1993, he invited Richard Nixon back to the White House and gave a eulogy at the funeral for the disgraced president in 1994.

Earlier this year, at the start of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton signed into law a bill renaming Washington National Airport after Ronald Reagan.

But like so many of Clinton’s political strategies these days, even his opportunism has been turned against him. In campaign ads, Republican candidates now are citing the integrity of Reagan and Bush in harsh comparison to Clinton’s supposed lack of character.

Looming Disaster

In November, the Democratic Party could be confronting a repeat of the disastrous 1994 elections -- or worse. Between “rope-a-dope” and Lewinsky, Democratic activists have little to cheer about. And off-year elections traditionally turn on turn-out, whether one party can excite its political base to go to the polls or, conversely, whether one party is so demoralized that its supporters sit on their hands.

In 1994, for instance, the GOP rallied its conservative supporters around the early Whitewater controversy and a hatred of government as represented by Clinton's failed health care plan. The Republicans flocked to the polls and many Democrats stayed home.

The Lewinsky scandal, combined with the blood-in-the-water thrill of Clinton's possible impeachment, could prompt a repeat of those 1994 conditions: determined Republicans versus dysfunctional Democrats.

For much of 1998, Republican leaders have made the noises that conservatives want to hear. Often, Lott -- the smooth-talking Mississippian -- took the lead, rather than Gingrich, who has a higher profile but also higher negative ratings.

In June, for instance, Lott went on a conservative radio talk show to denounce homosexuality as a weakness which he likened to alcoholism, "sex addiction" and kleptomania. Asked if homosexuality was a sin, Lott declared, "yes, it is." [See NYT, June 16, 1998.]

Giving substance to the words, Senate Republicans bottled up the appointment of an avowed homosexual, James Hormel, to be ambassador to Luxembourg. Also, pleasing to the Religious Right has been a GOP push to mandate prayer in public schools and to add anti-abortion riders to a variety of legislative proposals.

The Republicans quieted some rumblings in their business constituencies, too. Lott sidetracked an anti-tobacco bill that would have raised taxes on cigarettes and permitted federal regulation of nicotine. Republicans soothed other business concerns by reaffirming a commitment to new tax cuts and limits on environmental action.

But the key Republican rallying cry has remained "Clinton." Beyond exploiting the Clinton “scandals,” GOP leaders have heaped criticism on Clinton’s foreign policies.

When Clinton traveled to Africa in March, he expressed regret for the U.S. role in the slave trade. "Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European-Americans received the fruits of the slave trade, and we were wrong in that," the president said.

In response, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas called Clinton "a flower child with gray hairs doing exactly what he did back in the 60s: he's apologizing for the actions of the United States. Wherever he went. It just offends me that the president of the United States is, directly or indirectly, attacking his own country in a foreign land. It just amazes me."

DeLay further accused Clinton of a double-standard. "He didn't quite apologize for the chieftains in Uganda that were selling the blacks to the slave traders, did he? Heh," DeLay commented. "He didn't talk about what's-his-name, Idi Amin, that killed 500,000 people in Uganda. He didn't apologize for that."

DeLay also tried to tie Clinton's slavery comments back to the Lewinsky matter. "He's very quick to apologize for other people's mistakes, and he can't apologize for his own, and it comes right back to character," DeLay contended. "He's cheated on his wife, he'll cheat on the American people." [NYT, March, 28, 1998]

Gingrich challenged Clinton's foreign policy more directly when the House speaker traveled to Israel in May. Criticizing the administration's pressure on Israel to yield more land on the West Bank, Gingrich called Secretary of State Madeleine Albright "the agent of the Palestinians."

Embracing the Israeli claim of Jerusalem as "the united and eternal capital of Israel," Gingrich went on to lambaste Albright's diplomacy. "Our job should be to get the two of them to a table where they find an agreement, not to have us pressuring the Israelis to make an agreement." [NYT, May 27, 1998]

Amid Russia’s financial crisis in August, Gingrich criticized Clinton again. The speaker termed the Moscow summit between Clinton and embattled President Boris Yeltsin “imprudent.”

Taking another poke at Clinton’s Lewinsky problems, Gingrich added: “These are two weak presidents trying to prop each other up.” [NYT, Aug. 29, 1998]

The GOP’s animosity toward Clinton, of course, has been bubbling since 1992 when he ended 12 years of Republican control of the White House.
At every turn, the GOP has challenged Clinton's legitimacy, in large part, to deny the Democrats the legacy of a successful presidency. In that, the Republicans may have already succeeded. "Clinton" has become a national punch line, much as "Carter" and "Dukakis" were in past years.

But Clinton is more than than a reviled political opponent to conservatives. He is a poster boy for the hated Sixties. Many on the Right now hope that the Lewinsky case finally will end Clinton's political career.

Yet, Republicans in Congress are worried that Starr might send them only the sex scandal. They fear the Lewinsky case alone could open them to questions about their private lives and provoke a public backlash, especially if an impeachment drive disrupts the economy.

But Starr has encountered new troubles on the Whitewater front. His plan to shoehorn in David Hale's allegations about Clinton supposedly pushing for an illegal $300,000 loan in the mid-1980s collapsed amid new disclosures about Hale's ties to wealthy conservatives and his long record of deception. [For details, see Murray Waas's reporting for the online magazine Salon at]

Hard Hearts

For his part, Clinton seems determined to prove that he is a lover, not a fighter. He speaks of his travails in almost religious terms, seeking to forgive those who torment him, much as he wishes he might be forgiven.

“The anger, the resentment, the bitterness, the desire for recrimination against people you believe have wronged you -- they harden the heart and deaden the spirit and lead to self-inflicted wounds,” he told a gathering of civil rights activists on Aug. 28.

So, instead of taking on the Republicans, Clinton has followed a strategy of trying to prove that the Democrats can govern responsibly. He boasts of bringing the federal budget into balance -- an achievement once seen as undoable -- and cites some modest domestic programs, such as parental leave bills, more community policing and limited gun-control initiatives.

In a speech to the centrist Democratic Leadership Conference on June 4, Clinton explained his thinking and argued that his approach was the reason he was twice elected president.

"We were able to tell the American people in a convincing way that we could transform our nation -- and in the process, transform our party -- in a way that would enable us to do the eternal business of America; that in the face of new challenges and new opportunities we would find a way to change while still anchored in our basic values, and that we could bring good results to the American people," Clinton said.

"That is what I think brought about those two election victories. And I believe that history, when people look back on it, will show that. ... We are, in effect, building an American example for the new millennium right now.

"Now, just think how far we've come. Think about how America was in 1990, in 1991. We not only had problems, we were not only drifting apart and stagnating economically and our social problems were deepening, but there was a real belief on the part of many people that nobody was really concerned enough to do anything about it.

"And more and more we had folks in the other party saying, ‘well, there's a reason we're not concerned -- we can't do anything about it, because government is the problem and we just have to let this stuff happen and if we don't it will just get worse -- if we try to make it better, it will just get worse.’

"And you remember all their speeches -- ‘the Democrats would mess up a two-car parade’ and all that sort of thing. That was the basic prevailing conventional wisdom that they tried to hammer home. ‘So, yes, we have these problems, but we really can't deal with them because government is inherently the problem; that if you trust the Democrats, they just make it worse by trying to help.’

"And then, to make the climate worse, there were politicians who really tried to make these social differences in our country bigger, when I'm trying so hard to make them smaller. Every time, they saw a point of tension in our society, they saw that as an opportunity for what the professionals call 'wedge issues.'

“And there were even people who believed, looking at all this, that our country was in some sort of long-term decline, and all the experts believed -- the political experts believed -- that it would be a very, very long time before any Democrat could be elected, because the other party said, ‘government is inherently bad, and besides that, the Democrats can’t run the economy, manage foreign policy, they’re weak on crime, weak on welfare, and they’ll run the deficit up -- it will be a disaster.’ You remember that.

“Where is all that? It’s gone. What drove it away? Reality.”

Yet, when it comes to fighting the Republicans toe to toe for the political future and for the policies he claims to hold dear, Clinton still retreats to the ropes and covers up. He takes the pummeling and hopes for generous scoring from sympathetic judges.

As skilled a politician as he may be, Clinton offers the Democrats a Chamberlain when they may need a Churchill. Clinton acts the role of appeaser, even protecting the legacy of the Reagan-Bush era. While Clinton named National Airport after Reagan, Republicans seem most eager to name a jail cell after Clinton.

Even before Clinton’s Lewinsky admission, the political trends looked good for the Republicans. As Rev. Moon's Washington Times noted in a June 16 front-page article: "Apathy among voters a good omen for GOP."

The story began: "Signs abound that Americans are showing even less interest in voting than normal in an off-year election. That is seen as good news for Republicans, who have recently been concerned they might lose the majority status in Congress they gained in 1994."

Now, those trends look even better, as Clinton’s possible impeachment will be the dominant talk from Washington for the next two months.

Democratic candidates will be baited endlessly to denounce the president or to be associated with his moral transgressions. Democratic activists can be expected to sink into a deep funk.

Republican hardliners already can sense that their long-sought goal of Clinton's impeachment or forced resignation -- a knock-out punch against their hated and elusive prey -- might be only one election away.

Copyright (c) 1998

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