Some Democrats need their space from Clinton



WASHINGTON -- A political figure can always get a laugh when he's out campaigning for a colleague by quipping that he offered to speak for or against his friend, "whichever will help." In practice, however, a campaigner is asked either to say nice things about someone or, if that won't be beneficial, to stay out of sight.

That's why the advice of the political director of the Democratic National Committee, Don Sweitzer, to Democratic candidates that the party "will understand" if they want to keep their distance from President Clinton this fall is a mini-tempest in a teapot. If Sweitzer goofed, it was only in saying publicly, in a newspaper interview, what is standard operating procedure in both parties.

Although Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm later said that he disagreed and that Democrats should "run with the president," the bottom line in his job is to elect Democrats. And if in some states and congressional districts having candidates wrap themselves in Clinton's cloak might jeopardize that goal, as many Democratic consultants are now suggesting, Wilhelm well knows it would be foolhardy to insist that they do so.

This is especially so because Clinton needs to have as many Democrats in Congress in his second two years as he can to avoid slipping back into the kind of gridlock that plagued President George Bush in his single term. Although Democratic loss of control of Congress in November looks very far-fetched, key losses and Republican gains could result in a conservative coalition similar to the Southern "boll weevils" who helped Ronald Reagan in his first White House years -- this time working against Clinton.

"Nobody is asking for absolute fealty," Wilhelm says of his call for Democrats to run with Clinton. His point, he says, is that the Clinton administration has had achievements in deficit reduction, job creation and other areas on which any Democrat can profitably run, and that Sweitzer agrees with that.

In any event, very few presidents are so popular everywhere that association with them can guarantee the election of members of their own party. Even Ronald Reagan proved to have very weak coattails in his two mid-term elections. His Republican Party lost 26 House seats in 1982, the worst showing in 60 years by a party in the first mid-term after electing a president. And in 1986, Reagan's party lost five House seats and eight in the Senate, surrendering control of the latter.

Sweitzer's remarks are being compared by political insiders with the memo sent to all Republican congressional candidates in 1990 by Ed Rollins, then head of the GOP committee tasked with electing Republicans to Congress. In it, Rollins advised them to separate themselves from Bush on budget and tax matters after Bush had broken his 1988 "read my lips, no new taxes" campaign pledge, outraging millions of conservatives.

In that case, Rollins earlier had advised Republican candidates to crawl out on the same limb with Bush, and when the president cut it off Rollins felt obliged, with his advice, to try to save as many GOP seats as he could. But Bush felt at the time that Rollins was trying to lead a revolt of House Republicans against him on taxes, and demanded that he be fired. Rollins refused to go, but his relations with Bush were irreparably soured.

In Sweitzer's case, all the political director did was acknowledge the reality that some Democrats for one reason or another will not want to march in lockstep with their party's president in areas where his unpopularity could hurt their own chances of re-election. And apparently if anybody at the White House or the DNC is mad at him for saying so, nobody is demanding his head on a platter.

More worrisome for the president than having fellow Democrats giving him a wide berth in their re-election efforts is the danger that they may break with him in his drive to achieve health care reform this year. How they stand on this issue, and whether their re-election seems feasible, rather than whether or not they want to campaign as members of the Clinton team, more likely will determine the degree of help they will get from the national committee.

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