Democrats in disarray Clinton defeat: Unions and liberal wing embarrass their titular leader on trade bill.

November 24, 1997

THE DIVIDE between President Clinton and members of his own political party in the House of Representatives widened this month with the president's failure to win "fast track" trade-negotiating powers. Liberal Democrats -- not conservative Republicans -- undercut their titular leader.

That leaves both Mr. Clinton and House Democrats vulnerable as they go into an election year. Their party is in disarray.

On one side stands Bill Clinton, a politician with few firmly fixed principles who has successfully patched together shifting congressional majorities. That means finding common ground with Republican moderates, who often come closer to sharing his middle-road approach than many in his own party.

On the other side stand House Democrats, led by Rep. Dick Gephardt, who are unabashedly liberal. They fumed as Mr. Clinton cut deals with Republicans to win passage of a balanced-budget accord, welfare reform, a middle-class tax cut and a North American free-trade agreement. That anger boiled over when Mr. Clinton largely ignored them in his recent drive to win fast-track trade negotiating powers.

Instead, labor rushed to help House Democrats. Unions leveraged their influence by offering Democrats large campaign donations to offset heavy campaign infusions from the deep pockets of the national Republican Party.

But playing the labor card could be a two-edged sword, especially now that top labor officials have been implicated in the latest Teamsters corruption scandal.

Democratic congressmen also run the risk of going into an election year without the president by their side. Weakening and isolating a president with high approval ratings would add to public dissatisfaction with the party.

As for Mr. Clinton, he is fighting assertions of lame-duckism -- though that may be journalistic hyperbole for a politician who seems at his best when he is written off.

Each side needs the other. Mr. Clinton may not be liberal enough for many House Democrats, but their chances of regaining control of the chamber depends on how voters view the Clinton presidency. And Mr. Clinton cannot gain approval of fast-track trade or other key bills without broader support within his party.

Just as Mr. Clinton found issues where he could march in step with congressional Republicans, now he must do the same with liberals. Otherwise, he could face a bleak 1998, both on Capitol Hill and in the fall elections.

Pub Date: 11/24/97

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