Wednesday, January 20, 1999

President out to reclaim his legacy

Los Angeles Times

        WASHINGTON — President Clinton set out Tuesday evening to send Republicans in Congress a bracing message: He may be on trial in the Senate, he may carry the stain of impeachment by the House, but he can still seize the advantage on the nation's political battleground.

        Mr. Clinton's tone in his seventh State of the Union address was lofty and conciliatory. He gave not a word to the tawdry scandal and bitter debate that made him the second U.S. president to suffer impeachment.

        Instead, implicitly dismissing his trial as a sideshow, he detailed a lengthy agenda for a post-impeachment world, with two apparent aims.

        One was to make the case that the scandal has not crippled his presidency — to show Mr. Clinton still has two years' worth of activism in him.

        The other — voiced only gently by the president, but more bluntly by his aides — was to paint a partisan contrast between his Democratic agenda and that of his GOP opponents.

        “The Republicans have now been in charge of Congress for four years, and I don't know what they've got to show for it,” said White House counsel Doug Sosnik, briefing reporters about the speech. “We're the only ones on the playing field with ideas ... (on) aging, education, maintaining economic strength.”

        Crowed Democratic pollster Mark Mellman: “The Republi cans are turning into the party of impeachment and nothing more. The president is laying out an agenda that's very popular. The Republicans can either choose life and embrace it — or dig their own political grave.”

        The core of Mr. Clinton's 1999 program, a proposal to use the federal budget surplus to “save” Social Security and Medicare, was an unabashed return to traditional Democratic Party themes that cheered the president's loyalists and irritated his Republican opponents.

        “Thumbs up,” said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., who led Mr. Clinton's defense against impeachment in the House.

        “I don't buy it,” said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., one of the jurors who will decide the president's fate.

        Mr. Clinton's proposals also included new programs in child care and education, new money to train welfare recipients for work, and a dollar-an-hour increase in the minimum wage.

        Equally significant was an element missing from the president's plan: any real bow to the Republicans' core goal of tax cuts.

        “We aren't triangulating any more,” said a Democratic congressional aide, referring to Mr. Clinton's 1995 strategy of finding a middle ground between the two parties.

        Some House Democrats had worried Mr. Clinton might seek a compromise on tax cuts. Instead, his call for holding back projected surplus revenues of more than $4 trillion over the next 15 years prompted both sides to indulge in drawing old- fashioned party lines.

        “Republicans favor taxpayers, and President Clinton favors government,” said Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., a conservative leader in the Senate. “Under President Clinton's proposal tonight, government grows, government grows in every way imaginable.”

        Mr. Nickles and other Republicans have had the glum experience in recent weeks of contemplating polls that show almost two-thirds of the nation opposes removing the president from office, and public approval for the GOP dropping as Congress concentrated on Mr. Clinton's impeachment.

        Mr. Clinton once gloried in distinguishing himself from his party's mostly liberal leadership. But this year, after a bruising battle over impeachment that rallied liberals around the embattled president — and a congressional election that brought them within hailing distance of a majority in the House — Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gephardt have drawn closer than ever before.

        Mr. Clinton's focus Tuesday was Social Security and Medicare, the two giant “entitlement” programs whose reform was to be the crowning achievement of his second term.

        Clinton aides expressed satisfaction — because the proposal fulfilled the president's promise to save Social Security, and made it more possible to save his legacy from the ignominy of impeachment.


Clinton ignores impeachment, lays out ambitious agenda
Tristate congressmen criticize spending proposals
President's issues have local impact
Social Security plan is big, bold and controversial
Clinton cites first lady's 'historic role'
Government to sue to cigarette makers to recover smoking costs
Lukewarm criticism from GOP
- President out to reclaim his legacy
Text of State of the Union address
State of the Union address (Take 2)
State of the Union address (Take 3)
State of the Union address (Take 4)
State of the Union address (Take 5)
State of the Union address (Take 6)
State of the Union address (Take 7)
Clinton's lawyer presents scathing rebuke
Both parties praise president's counsel
Chabot: Ruff got it wrong
Defense low-key till end
GOP collecting, editing queries