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Clinton In Crisis: Few find joy in a nation that loses its innocence

POLITICAL PARTIES: David Usborne finds Republicans, as well as Democrats, unsettled by the radically altered political landscape
THERE IS little glee in Washington this weekend. The report from Kenneth Starr into the philanderings of Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky and his alleged cover-up effort exploded on Friday with the force of a political terrorist bomb. Windows have been blown out across the city and blinds are drooping in the wind. And make no mistake, it is not just the Democrats who have to repair and re-arrange the furniture.

Both the Democrats and their Republican foes are confronted with a radically altered political scenario. How they should proceed now is not obvious to either party. And they face stakes of unprecedented dimensions. America is just eight weeks from mid-term elections that will determine both the balance of power in the next US Congress as well as the governorships of numerous states. And then there are the implications for the next presidential race, in 2000.

Easiest to guess at, perhaps, is the cost of this calamity to the Democrats. For six years, President Bill Clinton, the New Democrat from Arkansas and pioneer of the new politics of personal responsibility, has been the centre of their universe. Now, he looks more like a black hole about to suck the entire shop into deep-space oblivion. Adjusting to this truth cannot be achieved in a single day.

The Starr report has pulverised the Democrats' hopes for November's elections. You cannot blame candidates for having difficulty in digesting their misfortune.

Just a few weeks ago, they were bubbling. They had a popular President with high marks for sustaining a buzzing economy. And the issues, they surmised, would play firmly to their advantage. They were set to bash the Republicans on several fronts: on jeopardising social security with deep cuts and hampering White House initiatives on education and health care. Now the conversation on the stump will be about sex, lies and answering machine tapes.

Even Democratic strategists agree that the likely result on 3 November is a debacle. Until recently, they had nurtured the hope that they could achieve the necessary net gain of 11 seats in the House of Representatives to regain the majority they lost in 1994. That has now been discarded. Even if supporters do not turn their backs en masse, they may simply inflict the damage another way, by staying at home and not voting at all.

Even scarier are the prospects for the Senate race. It is possible that the Republicans will win enough new seats to secure a majority of 60, enough to block filibusters by Democrats. Such a wide imbalance has not been seen in the Senate since 1909. Democrats thus find themselves on a tightrope. On the one hand, instinct tells them to open some distance between themselves and a President who has been so grievously discredited, but on the other they hardly want to be seen indulging in abject disloyalty to a man who still, in spite of everything, is party leader.

For those inclined to run, some cover at least has been provided by their leader in the House, Richard Gephardt of Missouri. Even two weeks ago, he startled some colleagues by conceding in an interview that he considered Clinton's conduct to have been "reprehensible". Tellingly, however, Mr Gephardt has since retreated from such harsh judgment of the President.

So are Republicans swigging champagne this Sunday morning? Actually, no. While the downside is nothing like so precipitous for them as for the Democrats, they have much to fret over. Most immediately, there is their handling of the Starr report in the House Judiciary Committee. When Republican leaders like Speaker Newt Gingrich last week put on their most solemn face to promise the American people they would try to ensure the process is not a partisan one, they meant it. They do not want to stand accused in glorying in the tragedy befalling the White House. If voters have expressed their disgust with politicians in the past, they would certainly not withhold their ire now if they catch the acrid whiff of a Republican witch-hunt.

With that in mind, the Republicans, and of course their Democrat counterparts, insist that the assessment of Mr Starr's charges will be conducted exclusively with regard to the law and the Constitution. As they consider whether to recommend initiation of impeachment hearings or pursue the far less dramatic course towards censure, all party political considerations will be put aside. That is what they say. But believe that and you will believe that Mr Clinton has been faithful to Hillary.

First stop for Republican strategists will be the anticipated crop of opinion polls. It is inconceivable that they will not show at least some weakening in Mr Clinton's approval ratings that have, until now, been astonishingly robust. If that erosion of support is only minimal, however, you can bet it will give Republicans pause and dampen their appetite to pursue blood and impeachment.

A glance forward to the presidential contest presents Republicans with an even trickier dilemma. Is it actually in their interest to dispatch Clinton from the White House? Many would argue that it is not. A preferable strategy, they say, would be to allow him to serve out the two-year balance of his presidency as a lame duck. The task of winning back the White House for the party in 2000 would therefore be rendered much easier. Dan Quayle, the former vice-president who is widely expected to run, is one of only a very few to say as much in public. "In strictly partisan political terms, it would be better keep him in office," he said last week on a visit to Iowa.

Quayle, however, may be making two errors here. First, are we confident that Clinton could not recover even from this? Probably, we should not be. It is a long-shot, but two years is a long time in politics and he has not earned the Comeback Kid label for nothing.

On the other hand, Mr Quayle seems to be assuming that Al Gore - who as Vice-President would find himself installed to replace Clinton - would prove the worthier contender. But he has serious problems of his own. Two weeks ago, Attorney General Janet Reno engaged a 90-day investigation process into allegations that the he illegally raised funds for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign from his telephone in the White House. At the end of that period, she must decided whether to appoint a special prosecutor to probe him.

To grasp just how utterly unpredictable the political landscape has now become, con- sider this. There is a real possibility that within a few months from now - or days if President Clinton unexpectedly resigns - Mr Gore may be in charge in the White House. But then, in a sequence of toppling dominoes, he himself could then become subject of a special prosecutor's investigation, the natural conclusion of which, if fundraising misdeeds were indeed proven, would be impeachment proceedings against him.

And let us suppose that he too is chased from office. Then his vice-president would become the President of the United States and leader and the free world until the close of 2000. And who would that person be? We don't have the faintest idea.