Leading Article: Clinton on the political rack

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The Independent Online
UNTIL a few weeks ago it was possible to believe that Bill Clinton would become the first Democrat for half a century to be re- elected to the world's most powerful office. He had the most successful first year, in domestic terms, of any president since Lyndon Johnson. The US economy was leaping ahead; the budget deficit was coming down sharply; the rapids of Nafta and Gatt had been negotiated; a rational healthcare debate was under way for the first time.

Now Mr Clinton faces the possibility of the life being slowly squeezed from his presidency by a little land deal he did 15 years ago as the 31-year-old gee-whiz Governor of Arkansas. As to whether he and Mrs Clinton did anything seriously dubious, even illegal, all those years ago, nothing convincing has yet emerged. A spot of small-state you-scratch-my-back politics, for sure; maybe a tardy tax payment or two. Despite lurid speculations about the suicide of the Clinton friend and aide Vince Foster, it remains difficult to picture Bill or Hillary as a murderer. (In any case, as one insider pointed out, they would have spent several years organising seminars on how to commit the crime.)

All this is now beside the point. A critical mass has been reached in the Whitewatergate affair. A combination of clumsy attempts by the White House to side-track the investigation, economy with the truth by the Clintons and hysterical exaggeration by right-wing American media and politicians (who know a dangerous enemy when they see one) have made Whitewatergate, not the economy, crime or health care, the dominant political issue of Mr Clinton's second year. The panoply of American instruments of political torture will soon be in place: special investigators, grand juries, Congressional hearings.

Even if the Clintons emerge vindicated, or, as is more likely, technically innocent but foolish, their hopes of enacting an ambitious domestic reform programme are gravely damaged. As in the Nixon White House at the time of Watergate, all the energy and effectiveness of the President - and in this case also the First Lady - may be monopolised for months by the struggle for political survival.

Mr and Mrs Clinton do not have months to spare. The mid-term Congressional elections are eight months away. Once they are over, the 1996 presidential race will, in effect, begin.

We should forbear to cheer. A weak president means a weak America, and the West needs America to be strong. President Clinton was promising to be a good, even, in context, a great president (foreign policy apart). He had squared up to issues US politicians had avoided for years: health care, education, guns, falling middle-class living standards. He has spoken honestly about race, to whites and blacks.

The destruction of President Clinton would bring joy to zealots of the Right - both in the US and here. But it would raise the question whether, in this all-seeing, little-forgiving media age, the US is governable at all.