Last week’s speech by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) blasting President Bill Clinton’s behavior in the Monica Lewinsky affair has spurred new talk in Jewish political circles about a presidential resignation.
So far, it is just that — private talk. But several Jewish leaders say Lieberman’s tough speech — and a growing feeling in Washington that the administration is all but paralyzed — have dramatically changed Clinton’s standing in the Jewish world.
Lieberman’s speech, in which he labeled Clinton’s behavior “immoral and harmful” and referred to “the damage the president’s conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency,” badly undercut Clinton’s support among Democratic leaders in Washington and around the country.
The speech by the only Orthodox member of the Senate also gave Jewish activists who have supported Clinton license to discuss all options — including resignation.
Lieberman’s speech “has really shaken people,” said American Jewish Congress director Phil Baum, who warned against a rush to judgment.“He was so eloquent, and he stated essential truths. His speech made a difference in our community, but it’s hard to tell exactly what the results will be.”
Baum referred to “something of a sea change in our community based on the feeling that Clinton is much more vulnerable, and that this may affect his ability to address the issues that are important to us.”
Lieberman’s speech came at a time when many Jewish activists who have supported Clinton are reluctantly coming to the conclusion that his ability to govern has been seriously impeded.
“This whole situation compromises our agenda — those things that we were counting on the White House for,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women, who emphasized that neither she nor her organization were calling for Clinton’s resignation.
“It’s very disturbing to see this weakened state; it’s compromising his ability to advocate for an agenda — much of which we share.”
In private, a number of Jewish activists put it in blunter terms.
“The idea that we could spend the next two years with a president who is focused almost entirely on maneuvering to protect his job is appalling,” said a Jewish lobbyist who has generally supported the Clinton agenda. “The real question is when does his preoccupation with self-defense become dangerous to the country. My own view is that we are at that point, or very close.”
This lobbyist and many of his colleagues worry that the administration will not be able to offer a significant counter force to conservative Republicans in Congress on issues such as health care, education, child are and reproductive choice, and that Clinton will not have the resources — personal or political — to provide strong economic or international leadership in a period of mounting uncertainty.
The fact that Clinton’s woes are likely to drag a number of Democrats down to defeat in November and increase the Republican majority in both Houses of Congress will only compound the problem for Jewish groups that depend heavily on Democrats for implementing their wide-ranging domestic agenda.
Clinton’s problems may be offset by “the fact that he has a good team in place,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who called Lieberman’s speech “a major turning point.”
“At this point I don’t think anybody could honestly say that the president’s predicament has impacted negatively on any area of our concern, but there is strong anxiety about the future.”Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster, said that “There’s almost a sense of panic in the political community. But there is not much change in the meter of public opinion, and that’s what the White House is looking at.”
Even critics say Jews are unlikely to join the Republican-led outcry for resignation or impeachment, in part because they say there’s still a possibility Clinton may be able to revive his presidency, in part because they don’t much care for the president’s harshest accusers.
But a growing number are edging toward the conclusion that Clinton’s own actions and the zeal of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr have rendered this administration impotent at a particularly dangerous moment in history, and that the nation would be better off if he quit.
“If I had to characterize the reaction in Jewish political circles, it’s sadness,” said a top official with one Jewish group. “We are sad that a president we’ve worked closely with is in this predicament, but we are also worried that he is so badly wounded that he will not be able to provide the leadership we so badly need.”