WASHINGTON - For the past year, the controversy over fund-raising in the 1996 presidential campaign has preoccupied the White House, bankrupted the Democratic National Committee and fueled the capital's partisan fires.
Attorney General Janet Reno's decision Tuesday against naming special counsels in the case doesn't close the case or extinguish those fires. But it does dampen them, and it probably signals a new and less explosive chapter in this continuing story.
"It's Bullet No. 457 that President Clinton has dodged," says political scientist Allan Lichtman of American University in Washington. For Vice President Al Gore, he says, "It's the dog that's not going to bite."
Citing the letter of the law, Reno informed a special three-judge federal panel that she would not ask for the appointment of special counsels to investigate whether President Clinton or Vice President Gore violated the 114-year-old Pendleton Act by making fund-raising phone calls from the White House.
While she vowed that a vigorous Justice Department investigation into all campaign fund-raising charges would continue, it won't focus on Clinton or Gore unless new evidence surfaces. Under the Ethics in Government Act, investigating top administration officials is the purview of independent counsels, who work outside the Justice Department and without time or budgetary limits.
The reaction was predictable: sighs of relief at the White House and expressions of outrage among congressional Republicans.
And among the public?
"A lot of talk about it in Washington but probably not a lot of alarm about it on Main Street," predicts Andrew Kohut, director of the non-profit Pew Research Center, which studies public opinion and the media. He says many Americans assume that both Republicans and Democrats stretch the law and that nothing much is going to be done about it.
A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll conducted Tuesday night found 52% of Americans in favor of a special counsel to investigate Clinton and 39% against. For Gore, the response was 50% in favor of a counsel and 42% saying no.
Given a choice of reactions from "outraged" to "delighted," the biggest group, 38%, chose "indifferent."
Ripples in Washington
But inside the Beltway, the repercussions are likely to be dramatic:
For Gore, the decision clears the way for intensive preparation for his expected 2000 presidential bid. Opponents in the Democratic primaries and in a general election still might use pictures of Gore raising funds from saffron-robed Buddhist nuns at a temple, but he won't be targeted by a special counsel whose inquiry almost certainly would have extended through the campaign.
"This has been put behind us, once and for all," Gore declared while visiting a Connecticut middle school. At the White House, his aides distributed a 73-page compilation of news clips and legal commentary supporting Reno's interpretation of the law.
A potential 2000 rival, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., said he doubted there would be much lasting political impact. Asked if Gore had been damaged, he replied, "My instincts tell me marginally."
For Republicans, it is one more frustrating turn in the wake of congressional hearings that have failed to ignite a public outcry against Clinton, at least so far. "They can't lay a glove on him," says presidential scholar Stephen Hess. "So they sputter a lot and turn red in the face."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called Reno's decision a "tragedy." Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., says his investigative committee will call Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh to Capitol Hill next Tuesday to question them. But Congress can't force the appointment of a special counsel.
For Freeh, the decision bares a breach between him and Reno that prompted some observers to suggest he should resign. According to a series of leaks, Freeh urged Reno to name a special counsel, arguing face to face and in a long memo that the conflicts of interest were so great that the Justice Department couldn't credibly investigate the issue.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry was frosty Tuesday when asked if Clinton still had confidence in Freeh: "The president addressed that in a sense today by suggesting that all the people who were responsible for law enforcement work need to work together and need to protect the American people and well-serve the American people."
Freeh released a statement acknowledging that he disagreed with Reno's decision but crediting her with "honesty and integrity" in making it.
For advocates of legislation to restrict political fund-raising, the decision dims the spotlight on the issue and makes it even more unlikely that legislation will be enacted anytime in the foreseeable future. Some say they'll now turn their attention to change at the state level.
"Reform may be dead in Washington, but no one says the system is fine in Massachusetts," says Ellen Miller of Public Campaign, an advocacy group. "It moves the focus out of Washington as the place to look for solutions and puts it very clearly back in the states."
Miller denounced Reno's decision, calling it "narrow, legalistic and wrong." She says, "It confirms two things: that politicians can't change the system and that political appointees won't enforce it." Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate committee investigating campaign finance, accused Reno of "misinterpreting the law."
But Reno, serious and stone-faced in a late-afternoon appearance, told reporters, "The decision was mine and it was based on the facts and the law, not pressure, politics or any other factor."
The USA TODAY poll measured whether people believed her. On the Clinton decision, 50% said it was based on the facts; 39% said she was trying to protect the president. On Gore, 52% said she made a fact-based decision and 37% thought she was trying to protect him.
Most, 54%, said they were confident she could investigate future allegations in a fair and impartial manner. The poll of 599 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
One irony: The repercussions for Clinton are probably less far-reaching than for Gore and others. With a prosperous economy, the president's healthy approval rating hasn't wavered. "Now if only (Whitewater special counsel) Ken Starr would wrap up," says former White House adviser George Stephanopoulos.
But there might be a price to pay on unrelated issues. The fund-raising controversy already has contributed to a more partisan climate in Washington that has made it harder to get things done. Frustration in the GOP-controlled Congress with Reno's decision could make that worse.
"If in Congress, among Republicans, there's a feeling that Clinton has slipped through once again and is getting away with something he should not, that is going to be a major chip on their shoulder and will show itself in all sorts of conflicts," says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
"I do think there will be a long-term price they will pay, the nature of which is hard to judge," says C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel for President Bush. "It will sour relationships with Congress. It will show up in confirmations. It will show up in appropriations. It will show up in all kinds of ways that aren't measurable now."
By Susan Page and Mimi Hall, USA TODAY