Democrats, Republicans keeping their political distance from Clinton

January 23, 1998|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The sound you hear from the political community is silence. Except for one or two rash Republicans braying about impeachment, the politicians on both sides of the aisle are keeping their distance from the case of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

It is a policy that makes sense for both Republicans and Democrats as the dimensions of the controversy keep changing. At the extremes, it is a case that could drive Mr. Clinton from office or, alternatively, simply be stifled by the president's denials that there was anything improper in his relationship with the young White House intern.

For the Republicans, there is the obvious temptation to talk about the potential for impeaching the Democrat president. Some of them still mutter about getting payback for the way Richard M. Nixon was driven from the presidency a generation ago.

But most Republicans are following the lead of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and saying nothing about the case. The political rule is that it isn't necessary to toss another match on the fire when your opposition is self-immolating.

There is no advantage for Republicans in lending credence to the complaints of Clinton supporters such as James Carville that the whole question of the president's personal conduct is being raised only for partisan political reasons.

Puzzling Democratic silence

On the face of it, the silence from the Democrats is a little more puzzling. Mr. Clinton is their president and, like it or not, they are going to have to assume some political responsibility for his reputation. In fact, however, Mr. Clinton has never had a zealous following of admirers within the Congress or within the party in a broader sense.

He has no real history in national politics outside his own campaign. He has never walked through a wall for fellow Democrats on a tough issue, so there is no reason to expect them to do the same for him today.

Nor does Clinton have anything positive to offer to his fellow VTC Democrats seeking re-election in November. The president can raise huge amounts of money for party candidates, but there is no reason to believe he can directly enlist voter support for them in the midterm election. Even Ronald Reagan found that was impossible when he tried it in a comparable midterm election in 1986. Like Mr. Clinton today, the Republican president was enjoying comfortable approval ratings from the public, but those ratings simply didn't translate into votes for Republican Senate candidates.

Piecemeal admissions

All this history aside, there are other reasons for caution among Democrats who might otherwise be tempted to support their president. The first is the way the story is developing incrementally every news cycle. Mr. Clinton has a long history of making piecemeal admissions of facts that might be politically damaging. That pattern was apparent during his first presidential campaign in dealing with issues as diverse as whether he smoked marijuana and dodged the draft during the war in Vietnam, both of which proved to be true but were nailed down only after reporters found the precise questions to ask.

In this case, we have seen the president insistent in his denials that he urged anyone to lie to investigators -- in other words, that he suborned perjury, which is a felony. But he has been far less definitive in responding to questions about whether he had a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. He has been just vague enough to send little warning signals to anyone who might be tempted to support him.

Still another factor in the political equation is the changed nature of the issues involved. Ever since Mr. Clinton was elected in 1992 despite the Gennifer Flowers episode, the conventional wisdom in the political world has been that voters already have factored in and discounted the fact that Clinton has a history of sexual peccadilloes.

Possible felonies

But no one who understands politics will believe that a liaison with a 21-year-old woman within the White House, if it happened, would be seen in the same light as the Flowers case. Nor can anyone imagine that the voters would be as tolerant of felonies committed in a cover-up as they may have been about Mr. Clinton's wandering eye.

At this point, no one knows how the Lewinsky story will play out politically. And, for entirely different reasons, Republicans and Democrats alike have sound reasons to keep their distance.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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