WASHINGTON -- She came to Capitol Hill amid lofty expectations, the first presidential spouse ever elected to public office and one of a phalanx of Democrats who gave the party new life in a Senate evenly split with Republicans.
But the debut of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, while promising initially, has become a disaster.
For the new senator from New York, mounting questions about what she and her husband did and didn't know when he issued last-minute pardons to felons and a fugitive are a monumental embarrassment.
This new episode and other ethical questions that have shadowed Sen. Clinton during her transition from the White House to the Capitol -- a mega-deal for her memoirs, the acceptance of a shower of gifts from wealthy friends -- have come at the worst possible time for her and her party.
Sen. Clinton and other congressional Democrats are seeking to develop a strategy of opposition to the Bush administration as Republicans move aggressively to rewrite the federal budget and cut taxes. The GOP is wielding nearly all levers of federal power for the first time since the 1950s.
But a coherent opposition strategy, if it yet exists, has been eclipsed by the seemingly never-ending string of Clinton controversies. How could the revised Democratic position on tax cuts possibly compete with this week's revelations about presidential brother-in-law Hugh Rodham's grab for influence? Or the revelations about the pardon of fugitive businessman Marc Rich, whose ex-wife gave generously to Democratic causes?
"It is certainly not how I would have preferred or planned to start my Senate career," Sen. Clinton acknowledged Thursday in a news conference, "and I regret deeply that there has been these kinds of matters occurring."
Many Democratic strategists are alarmed by a turn of events that has reminded the public of what they least liked about the two-term Clinton administration: Whitewater, Travelgate, Monica, Paula, the Rose Law Firm, the Lincoln Bedroom and all the rest.
"Clinton fatigue has reached its climax," said one senior Senate Democratic strategist, who like several others declined to be quoted by name. "They have virtually no defenders in any of this."
Democrats, forced to confront the controversies even as they try to redefine their party in the post-Clinton era, are searching desperately for silver linings. One beleaguered Democratic leadership aide noted that at least the fresh revelations about the Clinton pardons did not coincide with the upcoming release of the Bush budget -- a time when the party wants to go on the attack. "Better this week than next week," the aide said.
Another plus cited by Democratic strategists: talk of putting Sen. Clinton on the party's national ticket in 2004 is bound to recede, clearing the field for other Democrats.
"Not only can she forget about running for president," said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato, "she isn't going to be on anyone's credible list for (vice president). To do so would produce two months of scandal stories -- just regurgitating what's happened."
Clearly the Clinton problems are a gift to President Bush and congressional Republicans. A new Gallup poll shows that Bush's favorable ratings, which were about tied with President Clinton's late last year, have risen sharply while Bill Clinton's numbers have fallen. Sen. Clinton's ratings have also dropped but not quite as sharply.
Clinton so far has largely avoided catching any public flack from her colleagues. Eventually, Clinton will risk exhausting her goodwill with other senators unless she can steer clear of controversy for awhile.
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