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Bungled Clinton exit buoys Bush

Events deflect spotlight from the new president

SHARE Bungled Clinton exit buoys Bush

WASHINGTON — It's a silly question, maybe, but one worth asking: What shape would President Bush be in if Bill Clinton had just skipped the last week of his presidency and left town quietly, without pardoning the fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich, without a carload of gifts and without casting a covetous eye on a plutocratic suite of offices in a Manhattan high-rise?

Worth asking because the answer is so consequential: Bush would almost surely have had less of a free ride than he has in fact had. And he would probably not have taken command of his job so quickly.

Bush took office with no wind behind him. Having lost the popular vote, having won the electoral vote only with the help of a painfully divided Supreme Court, Bush was greeted with suspicion both inside the Beltway and beyond. He seemed to have blundered in nominating a hard-line conservative as attorney general when he clearly needed to build a coalition with the moderates.

But all that seems like ancient history. Democrats in Washington speak little about the debacle in Florida. Most of them have muted their attacks on the new attorney general, John Ashcroft. They are concentrating their criticism not on Bush but on former Vice President Al Gore for having run what they view as a feckless campaign against Bush and on Clinton for having bungled his exit.

All last week, the television networks and cable outlets led their broadcasts with news of Clinton's troubles. Bush's first weeks in office have passed with little critical examination in the news media, and the Democrats have been unable to challenge him effectively, although many of his proposals are controversial.

Clinton, who had hoped to be one of his party's principal voices after leaving office, has been thrown so thoroughly onto the defensive that he has had little to say about Bush's tax-cut proposals or his administration's first steps away from Clinton-era foreign, economic and security policy.

Bush has, of course, made some adroit moves that have helped smooth his way — meeting with legislators from both parties in a number of settings, indicating his willingness to compromise on major issues like taxes and health care and, in general, comporting himself with more dignity than Clinton, without making too big a point of it. Editorial writers and the top Democrats have done that for him, with help from the former president.