Political costs of scandal run high Report driving nail in Democratic hopes

'People are dispirited'

September 12, 1998|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Starr report has left President Clinton politically naked to his enemies. Whatever hope he nourished of significant backing from his fellow Democrats has been undermined and perhaps destroyed by the tawdry details of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Whether or not the president avoids impeachment, the rough consensus in the political community is that it would be rashly imprudent for any Democrat to defend him publicly at this point.

The Democrats' final verdict will depend on how badly their party suffers in the Nov. 3 mid-term elections and on whether voters turn away in disgust at the inelegant picture of the president's behavior in the White House.

For the moment, political strategists are advising Democrats to distance themselves from the issue.

"My advice is don't go there," said James Duffy, an adviser to Democratic candidates in several states. "If you have to discuss it, say that it's been reprehensible but you may be facing a vote later [on impeachment] and you need time to study the evidence."

But at the most practical level, there are several signs of trouble for the Democrats in the Nov. 3 election. Their first concern is a decline in turnout in the kind of election -- that is, in a nonpresidential year -- in which they regularly have the most difficult time getting out their vote.

Harrison Hickman, a leading Democratic poll-taker, said there has been "a slight increase in the last few days in the voters who claim to be registered Democrats who say they're not participating."

And other pollsters report growing evidence that the intensity in the electorate is largely found among Republicans and particularly the culturally conservative voters for whom "family values" issues are the most important ones. "They're embarrassed about this stuff," a Republican pollster said, "but not too embarrassed to vote against him."

"It's a real problem," said Tom King, a veteran consultant to Democrats. "People are dispirited about it."

The damage has been accelerated by the intensive media attention to the Starr report in the past few days that has supplanted home run hitter Mark McGwire as the focus of newspapers and television news broadcasts. "The last three or four days it is really starting to bite among Democrats," another ,, Democratic strategist said.

In the short term, the Starr report seems to have driven the final nail into Democratic hopes, realistic only a month ago, of gaining the 11 seats they need to reclaim the House of Representatives. Now, Democrats are facing the possibility that Republicans will add five to 10 or more seats to their House majority -- and perhaps gain several Senate seats.

Incumbents may be safe

King, an adviser to Democratic campaigns in several states, argues that most incumbents in both parties will be safe because of the general level of satisfaction in the electorate about the economy. Whatever malaise Clinton has caused, King said, could hurt Democrats in close contests for open seats or, in a few cases, in challenges to otherwise vulnerable Republican incumbents.

"We're playing at the margins here," he said.

There are about 60 House seats that might be seriously in doubt; about one-third of them are cases in which a depressed Democratic turnout can prove decisive for Republicans.

For the long haul, however, the politicians and their managers are most concerned about the picture of politics that can emerge from the Starr report and the months of wrangling over it ahead. This concern, moreover, is bipartisan.

"If I'm advising someone," said Eddie Mahe, a Republican consultant, "I tell them to treat this thing very seriously. There should be no prejudgment, look at the evidence, put aside your concern about the politics and do your level best."

'Tell the truth'

Democrat Hickman is giving his clients similar advice. "I tell them my advice, now more than ever, is to tell the truth about how they feel. The voters' antennae are especially sensitive to people who are not telling the truth."

Hickman has also noticed another anomaly in his firm's work recently -- "some trouble in completing interviews" with older voters who ordinarily are most willing to cooperate. His guess is that these are voters in an age group most likely to be offended and embarrassed by the lurid nature of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.

Professionals in both parties also doubt that voters will take the candidates' advice on Clinton's culpability at face value. "I don't think the public is looking for public officials to interpret all this," said Jim Duffy. "I say we shouldn't prejudge this. We shouldn't play politics with it."

What is most striking about the conversation in the political community is how surprised so many veterans of the wars seem to be about the dimensions of the crisis -- surprise that carries them far beyond the concern with the mid-term election or even the 2000 presidential campaign.

Republican Mahe said, for example, that he attended a Capitol Hill gathering of fellow conservatives the night the report was delivered to the House and found most people shaken up at the possibility of dealing with an impeachment.

'No joy, no delight'

"There was no joy, no delight, nobody saying, 'Isn't this great?' " said Mahe. "I think this is going to be a cathartic event for a lot of people."

At this stage, the professionals will be looking for public opinion polls measuring whether Clinton is having any success with either his daily expressions of contrition or his aggressive legal defense. Unless the president can halt the leakage of support seen in the past few days, there will be even less reason for fellow Democrats to rally around him.

Pub Date: 9/12/98

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