Campaigning Democrats dare not speak their president's name

July 17, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

SCRANTON, Pa. -- After five months of campaigning for Congress, Democrat Pat Casey is asked what he says when questioned by the public about President Clinton's problems.

"I haven't gotten it. . . . Not one person, never, not once," he said.

This is a measure of the gulf that has developed between Washington and the rest of the country since the Monica Lewinsky investigation began six months ago. In the capital, the case preoccupies, perhaps even obsesses, the politicians and the press. Here in the 10th congressional district of Pennsylvania, no one is interested.

Mr. Casey's Republican foe, Don Sherwood, doesn't bring it up either. "We haven't been discussing it," he said. "I don't think it's good politics for me to try to make political hay out of it. Everybody knows it's there, but I'm trying to run a positive campaign."

This is the common response from Republicans around the country. They and their strategists recognize that there could be a backlash from appearing to make a partisan use of the issue, particularly among women voters who are Mr. Clinton's strongest supporters. Meanwhile, if the president ends up in more serious trouble, that's a problem for the Democrats.

The Democrats are already paying a significant political price, however. They have one of their own presiding over an economic boom and enjoying approval ratings of more than 60 percent for his performance in office. Under ordinary circumstances, congressional Democratic candidates would be expected to appeal to voters to "send me to Washington to help President Clinton finish the job."

Such an argument could have some resonance in the struggle for control of the House, where the Democrats need a gain of 11 seats to regain the control they lost in 1994.

But it is a rare Democratic candidate these days who is willing to identify himself with the president. They see Mr. Clinton's job approval ratings, but they also see that most Americans don't approve of him personally.

And they also recognize that if they are going to advertise themselves as trying to join the Clinton team, they are opening a whole can of political worms. Once the subject of Mr. Clinton's leadership is raised in any campaign, the Democrats who raise it will have to answer questions about whether they approve of Mr. Clinton's personal conduct -- questions they can now dodge by steering clear of the whole issue.

The Republicans are not entirely free, either, when it comes to identifying themselves with their national party leadership. Don Sherwood is one of many Republican candidates who don't make a point of portraying themselves as willing acolytes of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Although they have improved somewhat, Mr. Gingrich's poll ratings are forbidding.

The result is that neither the House campaign as a whole nor many individual House races can be seen as a referendum on the direction of the country or on specific programs before Congress.

There are, of course, some issues that divide the two parties. For example, some conservative Republicans, including Mr. Sherwood, are supporting proposals for scrapping the Internal Revenue Service and the tax code and substituting a flat-tax system. Democrats generally, including Mr. Casey here, depict the flat tax as a threat to middle-class taxpayers.

But none of these issues has the kind of volatility to swing any major segment of the electorate in one direction or another.

The result is that the contest for control of the House this year is, as is usually the case, 435 different contests that are likely to turn on the strengths and weaknesses of particular candidates and such variables as voter turnout.

The situation could change before the November election. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr could strike out so dramatically that Mr. Clinton would earn a wave of public sympathy that would cause Democrats to identify themselves with him. Alternatively, the Lewinsky affair could reach a level of tawdriness that would embolden Republicans to bring it into the campaign. A few of them already are trying to do so to appeal to voters who are religious fundamentalists.

But right now there is this eerie vacuum in the campaign -- a president who gets high marks for his performance and programs but is treated by his fellow Democrats as an invisible man. Mr. Clinton is a resource they don't dare use.

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

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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