Lewinsky matter leaves GOP in catbird seat in an election year

August 05, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In politics the ultimate verdict always comes from the voters. In this capital these days, that means the critical question is how, if at all, a resolution of the Monica Lewinsky episode will affect the midterm congressional elections.

The focus on that question has grown more intense, moreover, with the prospect that testimony from both Ms. Lewinsky and President Clinton will bring the issue to some resolution before November. Although there are many variables on two propositions on which political professionals in both parties seem to agree.

The first is that the Democrats' chances of gaining the 11 seats they need to capture the House have been weakened and perhaps fatally compromised.

The second is that the Republicans, with a few extremist exceptions, don't want to deal with the issue of whether Mr. Clinton should be impeached before or after the election. "There's no more than eight or 10 people who want to pursue this thing," one Republican congressman said privately of the sentiment in the House majority.

The problem for the Democrats is that their prospects in November rest heavily on inspiring a large turnout of their voters. That is always more difficult for Democrats in midterm elections because fewer poor and minority voters, the groups that vote most heavily Democratic, regularly cast ballots. One of the reasons the Democrats lost the House in 1994 was a low turnout among black voters.

Ordinarily, the context of the 1998 election would seem to be favorable for the Democrats. The economy is booming and opinion polls show Americans are both content and optimistic. This would seem to argue for Democratic candidates trying to rally their voter bases by asking for support "to help the president finish the job."

What the Democrats recognize, however, is that if they tie themselves to Mr. Clinton in this campaign, they cannot limit the connections they claim. If they were going to boast about Mr. Clinton's performance on the economy, they could expect to be obliged to say what they think about his personal conduct in the White House.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are in the catbird seat. They can depend on special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the news media to keep laying bare the distasteful details of the relationship between the president and the young White House intern. Most importantly, the Republicans can avoid being identified as partisan exploiters of the president's problems.

The Republicans are clearly anxious to avoid a full-scale impeachment process based solely on the relationship between Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky and whether the president lied about it. These politicians know most Americans consider this argument over a sexual relationship to be both distasteful and trivial, not the kind of thing that would qualify as the "high crimes and misdemeanors" for which a sitting president can be removed from office.

This realistic assessment of voter attitudes is one of the factors underlying the growing pressure on Mr. Clinton to bring the whole question to a resolution by simply admitting he made the mistake of lying about the relationship in his testimony in the Paula Jones civil suit, which was later dismissed. If the president did apologize, "The American people would breathe a sigh of relief," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Some Democrats are saying the same thing. What they want to see, they say, is the whole unsavory business settled so the political discourse can once again be centered on policies and programs. That wouldn't assure them of gains in either the Senate or House contests this year, but it would at least take them off the defensive about their leader in the White House.

Such a confession by Mr. Clinton would run contrary to his history of dealing with embarrassing accusations about his personal life. His style always had been to stonewall as long as possible, then reply as artfully as possible to leave room for some doubt. That was what he did, for example, in those 1992 controversies over Gennifer Flowers, his draft history and his use of marijuana.

In this case, hair-splitting would be made difficult by his public declaration in January that he had no sexual relationship with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky." But the situation is so smelly that politicians in both parties want to put it behind them.

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

Pub Date: 8/05/98

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