Democrats can't afford to take a walk on Clinton


BOSTON -- Politics in Massachusetts has always been considered a little odd. This was, after all, the only state in the union to support George McGovern for president in 1972.

Now there is fresh evidence. Opinion polls here, both published and private, show President Clinton is still relatively popular. One recent survey found him winning the approval of 56 percent of the electorate, compared to the disapproval of only 39 percent. Those figures are at least 10 percent higher on the plus side and lower on the minus side than corresponding national numbers.

Nobody in politics here can quite figure it out. Some professionals say that the approval rating in the latest survey here may have been inflated because part of it was taken just after the landing of the troops in Haiti and may have reflected a desire to "support the president" in a time of international stress.

Others simply write the numbers off as the reflection of the overwhelming Democratic voter registration in the state. Still others simply don't believe the polling has been accurate.

Whatever the reason, however, the figures are being taken seriously enough by the campaign managers of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy that they are pleased that Clinton is coming here later this month to sign the education bill and share the glory with Kennedy, whose message in seeking re-election against a formidable Republican, Mitt Romney, is that he can deliver the goods on things like education bills.

This welcome mat contrasts sharply with what the president is experiencing elsewhere. The one prominent Democratic candidate who has shown the most enthusiasm for being identified with Clinton up to now has been, perhaps not coincidentally, the one in the most trouble himself -- Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, who is considered to be in desperate peril in his campaign to stave off Republican Oliver North.

Elsewhere, the most anyone has wanted from Clinton has been his ability to quietly raise a little money and quickly return to the White House.

The message, in short, has been that identification with Clinton is political poison. In Detroit the other day, it was delivered in spades by the absence of Democratic congressional candidates from the president's side. These politicians may be extremely shortsighted, however.

For one thing, it is apparent that no Democrat can totally separate himself or herself from the national administration of the same party.

Voters already know -- or surely will be told by the Republican opposition's television commercials -- how much support incumbents have given Clinton and already are factoring that into their decisions.

More to the point, these Democrats are missing the opportunity to identify themselves with the positive message that Clinton is trying to deliver as he defends the record of the administration and attacks the Republican "contract with America" he says would turn the clock back to Reaganomics and the economic problems that elected him in the first place.

Candidates can make that case themselves, of course, but even a president with serious political problems can be far more effective than any aspiring senator or congressman in defining the terms of a political debate in the most advantageous way.

As one Democratic officeholder here put it, "Don't quote me because I think Clinton's a disaster, but you can't take a walk on your own president. People aren't going to believe it anyway, so you might as well use him to get the troops out."

That is the critical point. Whether Clinton's approval rating is the 56 percent here or a figure half that size in some Southern states, most voters aren't going to view their decisions on Senate or House races as part of some referendum.

The fundamental weakness in the Democratic position is that party morale has plunged to such depths that turnout, always depressed in non-presidential election years, is likely to fall to record low levels.

Thus, here in Massachusetts, neither Kennedy nor his strategists imagine that Bill Clinton is going to convert those who already have decided that 32 years of Ted Kennedy in the Senate is enough and that it is time for Mitt Romney.

But what the president might do, here or anywhere, is arouse enough enthusiasm among Democrats to prevent a bad year from turning into a debacle.

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