Fearing the other shoe, it's every Democrat for himself

September 02, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In the two weeks since President Clinton's confession of error, the White House has been stung by the vehemence of the disapproval that has been registered by Democrats they had counted as political allies.

The only Democrat of national stature who might be counted as publicly supportive has been Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who endured a similar national scandal himself when Mary Jo Kopechne drowned at Chappaquiddick almost 30 years ago. From others, the best Mr. Clinton has been given is the line that they have been "disappointed" by his relationship with Monica Lewinsky but that it is time to "move on" to deal with national concerns.

The most powerful Democrat outside the administration, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, adopted that approach only after calling the president's conduct "reprehensible" and after publicly discussing the possibility that the House may face a decision on whether Mr. Clinton should be impeached.

Meanwhile, several rank-and-file House Democrats have been willing to say publicly that they don't want the president coming into their districts to help them in their re-election campaigns. Two factors are at work here. The first is the fact that Mr. Clinton has few natural allies in Congress. As a governor, he has never been in the trenches with other Democrats fighting at their side on major national issues. By contrast, when Richard M. Nixon was in trouble on far more serious issues 25 years ago, he was able to count on the support of some of his old congressional colleagues.

But the real problem for the White House in trying to rally support is simply that many Democrats fear another shoe is about to drop. This city is rife with rumors, unproven up to this point, about the potentially incendiary material that might be contained in the report to Congress from independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

And Mr. Clinton's own protestations of innocence carry little or no weight. That skepticism is the price he pays for the seven months in which Democrats took him at his word when he said there had been no sexual relationship "with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

For a Democrat running right now, the obvious fear is that he or she will defend Mr. Clinton only to be further embarrassed by some subsequent disclosure about his behavior. That is what already has happened to those White House staff advisers and Cabinet members, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who spoke up for Mr. Clinton so forcefully when the Lewinsky accusations first surfaced last January.

Throughout the spring and early summer, Democrats were telling themselves they could avoid being touched by the Clinton scandal. It would be seen, they assured themselves and others, as a personal matter rather than one reflecting on the Democratic Party.

Now they are discovering that the issue cannot be avoided. They are being pressed either by their opponents or news organizations to say what they think of Mr. Clinton's conduct and whether he should be subject to censure, forced to resign or impeached -- questions for which there are no good answers for Democrats.

The result is that the Democrats' extravagant hopes of winning back the House -- they need a net gain of 11 seats -- seem even flimsier than they did last spring. To meet that goal, the Democrats would have to reverse the normal pattern of midterm elections and attract a turnout relatively higher than that of the Republicans.

But a campaign based on defending Mr. Clinton is not one that would bring Democrats racing to the polling places. On the contrary, the experts now say they expect turnout to reach a new low.

Just how the Lewinsky matter plays out is, of course, largely a function of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr's timing. If he submits a report late this month, House Republican leaders want to defer any action on it until after the election, thus avoiding charges of partisan piling on.

It is a moral certainty, nonetheless, that the contents of the report will leak within a matter of days. And those Democratic candidates will once again be solicited for their opinion when they would rather be talking about education or tax cuts or even saving the Social Security system.

Indeed, the outlook for the Democrats is so awkward it is no surprise they were less than satisfied with the president's response. It didn't get him or his party off the hook. So now it is every Democrat for himself.

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

Pub Date: 9/02/98

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