The Starr Report: Key players in America's endgame

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The Independent Online
AS THE old saying goes, a friend in need is a damned nuisance. It is the friends of Bill Clinton - not the old Arkansan buddies but the political allies he has accumulated as a consequence of his election to the White House six years ago - who must now make the most difficult choices about their options in the days to come.

The Democrats began to break publicly with him a week ago, when Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Pat Moynihan of New York led the charge. Since then, every Democrat has had to choose sides. Governor Parris Glendening of Maryland cancelled a presidential visit; others will do the same. Mr Clinton has moved from the credit side of the political ledger and his name is now written in red. He is a liability, not an asset.

Mr Moynihan had been saying in private for months that he regarded the President as a disgrace. He may not even run for office again; his judgement reflects that of the party's grandees, who have long had little time for the man from Hope.

Partly, what is happening is that some of the old cleavages are re-emerging and the worry for party managers must be that what had become a more disciplined, efficient machine will disintegrate.

Significantly, Mr Lieberman is an old ally of the President's, who re- energised the Democrats under new centrist slogans, ditching old dogma in search of a third way. In many respects, these are the people who put most faith and political capital into the fresh-faced young Southern governor. Now he looks more like the Southern governors of old: corrupted by power, immoral and relying on quick fixes and personal connections to save his bacon when the going gets tough.

Mr Lieberman had also been rumoured to be a running-mate for Al Gore in 2000. If that was on his mind, the political calculation, that the President was wrecking the chances of an uninterrupted 12 or 16 years in the White House for the Democrats, was plain. It may be that Mr Lieberman had other calculations: if Mr Gore has to look for a vice-president to sit out the remaining two years of what should be the Clinton presidency, a man who made his discontent public would be an ideal choice.

Mr Gore has even tougher choices to make. If he remains loyal and upfront about it, he risks being tarred by the same brush. He is already the target of an inquiry by the Justice Department on campaign financing. He has blended into the background, something for which his somewhat bland style fits him perfectly. But at some stage, if impeachment becomes a possibility, he will have to make hard choices.

Hard choices, too, confront Mr Clinton's allies abroad. No one has been more publicly supportive and personally close than Tony Blair, the foreign leader the President was in closest contact with over the missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan, the fellow-traveller on the third way, the generational twin across the Atlantic.

Personal ties in diplomacy are rarely as important as they are made out to be but between Downing Street and the White House there must be some closeness for the relationship to flourish, as there was between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, or Harold Macmillan and John Kennedy, and as there definitely was not between John Major and Mr Clinton. Moving away, even a few steps, carries grave risks for Mr Blair, however. Every word and gesture will be examined over the coming weeks; he will be probed mercilessly.

For those who wish the President ill, there are also risks in coming weeks. If the office of the president itself comes to be seen as a target, the public will take it very hard. There is still a great deal of goodwill towards Bill Clinton the president as opposed to the husband and father, and, even though the public is catching up with the mood of the politicians and the media, if either gets too far in front, they will pay a price.

The key elements will be timing. The hearings on the President may drag on into next year, which would paralyse the presidency and Congress. No one would be in charge of the country. If that is seen to harm the nation, if the economy tips into recession, the blame game will start, and Republicans will be no more immune than Democrats. Equally, it is possible that, as the charges are endlessly rehearsed, public sentiment could change again.

Public reaction is the hardest element to judge in the equation that will decide Republican strategy and also the President's future. There is a wave of moralism entering the public language of politics, and opinion polls record rising concern about the ethics of America. It was evident before the Lewinsky affair: it is partly a reflection of the lack of any security challenges and the sunny economy. So far it has not caught up with the public's general perceptions of the President's handling of political and economic issues, where he scores highly - very highly.

FRIENDS

The Democrats who support the President must decide whether to keep him at arm's length or back him to the hilt as a forgiven sinner. Mid-term Congressional elections in two months make the first course preferable. Who needs enemies when you have friends like these?

ENEMIES

Just because Bill and Hillary are paranoid, doesn't mean there isn't a conspiracy. Key Republicans who have targeted the President will aim to drag out proceedings to keep Al Gore out of the Oval Office. They may draw back if the public thinks they are destroying the office of President, not just the man.

MEDIA

The public says it wants to know less - but keeps tuning in and reading the scurrilous websites. Newspapers have toughened their stand against Clinton, and many now urge resignation. The networks watch the ratings; saturation coverage will go into even higher gear if impeachment proceedings begin.

VOTERS

There are signs that voters are changing their previous attitude - that they thought highly of the President as office-holder, and poorly of him as a man. Many Democrats may not vote; Republicans will, and that may deal the Democrats a series of defeats in November's elections

WIFE

Should I stay or should I go? So far she has remained by his side, and will probably continue to do so. There is little she does not know about his infidelities. Count on two sets of removal vans outside the White House when the President leaves, however. She will have a life of her own.

ALLIES

Tony Blair and others have backed Bill publicly, and often. But in the language of diplomacy, there comes a time when it is appropriate to reconsider the nature of a friendship. That could mean putting some distance into the Anglo-American Special Relationship, and shifting from BC (Bill Clinton) to AD (After the Democrats)

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