Has GOP Victory Fatally Weakened Clinton's Chances for a Second Term?

November 13, 1994|By JULES WITCOVER

Washington -- Of President Clinton's seven most recent predecessors in the White House going back 34 years, only one -- Ronald Reagan -- served two full terms. Does the outpouring of anti-Democratic, anti-Clinton sentiment in the midterm elections just concluded presage that Mr. Clinton will join the ranks of the rejected in 1996?

The Republicans who captured control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades obviously hope and believe so.

Even before that overwhelming voter repudiation of Mr. Clinton and his Democratic Party, GOP presidential hopefuls were lining up for the chance to take him on.

The new Senate majority leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, gave his strongest hint yet on election night that he will run, noting that being president wouldn't stop Mr. Clinton from seeking re-election, so why couldn't Mr. Dole go after the presidency while serving as the majority leader in the Senate?

Speculation that he so enjoyed that job the last time he had it, from 1985 through 1986, that he would pass up his third shot at the presidency isn't heard much now.

At least three other Republicans have all but declared their intention to run: -- Sen. Phil Gramm, of Texas, former Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney and former Tennessee Gov. and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

Also, former Vice President Dan Quayle has filed a presidential exploratory committee with the Federal Election Commission.

Now that the midterm elections are over, another possible candidate is Jack F. Kemp, the former congressman who was housing and urban development secretary in the Bush administration.

Talk continues about the availability of retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, although it's not known if he's a Republican.

Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts and Gov. Pete Wilson of California, both just re-elected, are being mentioned, along with other GOP governors.

And then there is Ross Perot, but he would be more likely to run as an independent if he tried again. But what about other Democrats?

Although no member of Mr. Clinton's own party has even hinted at an interest in challenging him, the electoral catastrophe just delivered on the Democrats, and on Mr. Clinton in light of his strenuous campaign efforts in behalf of numerous candidates who were defeated, raises the possibility that he may not have a free ride to renomination if he decides, as is now expected, to seek a second term.

To put it mildly, Mr. Clinton's second two years in the Oval Office figure to make the first two seem 24 months at the beach by comparison. The new Republican majority undoubtedly will oblige him to compromise his legislative objectives or dig in his heels, use the veto he has so far declined to invoke, and risk the label of obstructionist he tried to stick on the Republicans.

There was a time when an incumbent president could have renomination for the asking.

But that time is past. Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy took on President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968; Rep. Paul N. "Pete" McCloskey Jr. and Rep. John M. Ashbrook challenged President Richard M. Nixon in 1972; Mr. Reagan opposed President Gerald R. Ford Jr. in 1976; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Gov. Jerry Brown tried to wrest the Democratic nomination from President Jimmy Carter in 1980; commentator Patrick J. Buchanan opposed President George Bush in 1992.

If by the end of next year Mr. Clinton appears to be so politically damaged as to make his re-election seem a long shot to fellow Democrats, the climate may be favorable to another Democrat entering the race without undue intraparty criticism and, in fact, with considerable encouragement by other Democratic officeholders who won't want to go down with a sinking ship.

Two Democrats who competed with Mr. Clinton for the 1992 party presidential nomination, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, had been openly critical of the president of their own party well before the midterm election results that highlighted his vulnerability.

Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Clinton have had an up-and-down relationship ever since the 1992 Democratic presidential primaries, when Mr. Kerrey observed that because of Mr. Clinton's lack of military service, if nominated he would be "opened up like a soft peanut."

Last year, when Mr. Kerrey reluctantly cast a desperately needed vote for the president's deficit-reduction package, the Nebraskan took to the Senate floor to publicly cajole Mr. Clinton to be more faithful to his political principles.

"Get back on the high road, Mr. President, where you are at your best," Mr. Kerrey said then.

This year, Mr. Kerrey also pointedly criticized the president for what Mr. Kerrey said was an unwillingness to work with the Republicans on health care reform and called on him to be candid about the costs that accompanied new health care legislation.

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