Strange Bedfellow

Is the President Impotent?

And no, we don’t mean it that way.

The pragmatist’s case against President Clinton–as opposed to the moralist’s–is premised on the notion that he’s powerless, so disgraced and mistrusted that his presidency is finished politically if not chronologically. But a peculiar little side drama on Capitol Hill suggests that this conclusion is not as certain as it seems. It offers evidence that Clinton’s Flytrap weakness can be, in at least one small case, a perverse source of strength.

The drama concerns one of Washington, D.C.’s dreariest annual rituals, the appropriations process. Every September, Congress squabbles over the 13 annual spending bills needed to keep the government operating. Every year, House Republicans strip funding from favorite Clinton programs and lard the bills with anti-abortion and anti-environmental riders. As the end of each fiscal year looms with no agreement between Congress and the president, conflict escalates, and the president threatens vetoes. And every year, a last minute continuing resolution prevents shutdown (or not, as in 1995-96), both sides make cosmetic concessions, the bills move, and everyone goes home.

Same story this September. The fiscal year ends in two weeks. Only one of 13 bills has passed, and Clinton is threatening to veto seven of the unfinished ones. He objects that the Republicans would defund education, the International Monetary Fund, summer jobs, and literacy programs and that they have attached unacceptable language about abortion, the census, and the environment. Does this mean we are headed for another shutdown?

No, and the reasons reveal much about Flytrap game theory. At the mere mention of the word “shutdown,” the average Republican politician curls up in a ball on the floor and blubbers. (One fretful GOP staffer I spoke to would refer only to “the s-word.”) The 1995-96 budget showdown and shutdown were, of course, a nightmare for Republicans. Clinton demonized them, revived his own flagging career, and guaranteed himself the 1996 presidential election. The memory still traumatizes the GOP. (But Republicans may laugh last about that shutdown. It was then, after all, that Clinton and Lewinsky began their affair.)

I t is now an article of faith among conservatives that Clinton wants another shutdown, that he will gin up a spending fight to provoke one. Republicans fear that if he picks his issues carefully–education or the environment, not the IMF (too foreign)–vetoes some of the spending bills, and blocks a continuing resolution, he could galvanize disaffected Democrats in Congress and distract voters from Flytrap. A Washington Times op-ed piece last week called this Clinton’s “domestic … Wag the Dog strategy.” Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich have repeatedly hinted that Americans should not be suckered by a Clinton-induced shutdown.

Republican worries are not far-fetched. Though a Democratic appropriations committee spokeswoman and an Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman dismiss the idea that Democrats want a shutdown, the White House and Hill Democrats are clearly spoiling for a good fight. “Democrats want to talk about anything besides Monica Lewinsky. They are looking forward to talking about education,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “Hill Democrats are urging us to be tough,” says a White House staffer. Democrats, who don’t have much else to campaign on, would welcome an appropriations riot. Tarring Republicans as anti-education, anti-abortion polluters is a time-honored Democratic election strategy.

The Republicans’ dilemma is that they are, as always, fiercely divided. Red-meat conservatives, who willfully refuse to learn from their 1995 mistakes, yearn to boot Clinton when he’s down. They loathe him. The weaker he gets, the less they are willing to concede in appropriations. Leading conservative Rep. David McIntosh, R-Ind., told Roll Call last month that the GOP would “win” a shutdown if Clinton forced one, because Americans would realize he was trying to distract them from Lewinsky. (They thought they would “win” the last shutdown, too.)

Talk of challenging Clinton alarms Republican leaders and moderates. Clinton is gushing blood. Democratic congressional candidates are sinking. “Congressional Republicans are judged in November. … They are on a roll, and they don’t need to do anything that will jeopardize that roll,” says congressional analyst Norm Ornstein. And Flytrap makes other political jockeying especially foolhardy. Republicans don’t want to seem partisan or malicious now so they can be partisan and malicious during the post-election Flytrap hearings.

So the result, weirdly, is a no-lose for Clinton. If conservative Republicans are reckless enough to provoke an appropriations showdown, Clinton will probably win the public relations war, revive Democrats, and ward off Flytrap, exactly what Republicans fear most. If the GOP doesn’t provoke him, he’ll be able to extract concessions in the appropriations bills. The latter scenario is far more likely. Die-hard conservatives are not numerous enough or suicidal enough to force a showdown. Moderates and the leadership will prevail and give Clinton much of what he wants. They will let the enfeebled president win now, the better to kill him later. “They don’t want to give us any chance to recover and distract from the Starr report and unify us. So they’ll cave,” says a White House staffer. This, I suppose, is politics: The GOP will happily concede the substance (money) to win the symbolism.

A backdoor appropriations victory is not exactly the strong-arming triumph a chief executive is supposed to win over Congress. But for the Flytrapped president, it’s better than nothing.