WASHINGTON -- He didn't give a victory speech. In fact, he stayed mostly in the shadows yesterday. But President Clinton, while not on any ballot, emerged as a clear winner last night as Democrats managed to stave off major gains by Republicans around the country.
With the election viewed as a referendum on Clinton's fate -- specifically, the impending impeachment proceedings -- the respectable showing by Democrats was expected to strengthen the president's position and weaken the hand of those pushing for the impeachment and removal of Clinton.
"The mood is really upbeat," one senior White House official said last night. "Given what we've gone through the past few months, the outcome is truly remarkable. Think about all of the predictions, the ones that said Republicans would sweep to a huge majority. It didn't happen."
Said Democratic strategist Robert Squier, "The message tonight 'Read my smile.' "
Clinton closely tracked the early results last night from the office of his new chief of staff, John Podesta, and called some of the Democratic winners.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, home from feverish coast-to-coast campaigning, chose instead to watch the new movie "Beloved" in the White House family theater. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said the first lady was superstitious: "She just doesn't like to sit through early returns."
The Clintons later retired to the Oval Office to watch returns late into the night with friends, staff and political supporters.
For all of the breathtakingly humiliating revelations about Clinton's conduct in the Monica Lewinsky matter that have made headlines in the last year, the scandal appeared to do little damage to Democrats.
In fact, if anything, the outcome suggested that Republicans, who launched a last-minute ad campaign focusing on the Lewinsky affair, may have provoked a Democratic backlash.
Exit polls showed that, even though two-thirds of the voters said they believed the Lewinsky scandal had hurt Clinton's ability to lead the nation, about the same number said they disapproved of how Republicans have handled the issue.
A small majority of voters said they approved of Clinton's job performance and wanted the congressional inquiry dropped.
Republicans had hoped that large gains in the House and Senate would energize the impeachment proceedings that are expected to begin next week with hearings by a House Judiciary subcommittee on the history of impeachment.
And the White House feared that, in a worst-case scenario, the GOP would pick up enough seats in the Senate -- where a two-thirds majority is needed to remove a president from office -- to make conviction of Clinton a possibility.
But without significant gains by the GOP, the call for a speedy resolution to the Lewinsky matter -- possibly a presidential censure by Congress rather than a full impeachment inquiry -- could pick up momentum.
And Democrats suggested last night that the results also vindicated Clinton's argument that voters were more interested in issues that affect them than the presidential investigation.
Nonetheless, some Republicans predicted the election results would have little effect on the impeachment proceedings. "It goes ahead pretty much as planned," said Marlin Fitzwater, former White House press secretary to Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan.
But others said the electorate was indeed sending message to Congress. Clinton "has been badly wounded by the scandal," said GOP consultant and former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed. "But the people are telling Republicans if there's something firm, deal with it. Otherwise, move on to the business of the country."
The White House said Clinton would not comment on the election results until today.
In his only public remarks yesterday, the president tried to downplay the notion that the election was about him, saying it was a referendum instead "on all the hopes of the American people for the future and their assessment of the present condition, and how we get from here to a better tomorrow."
In the past few days, Clinton has acknowledged that large
Republican gains in Congress would make his last two years in office difficult.
But yesterday, he focused as much on the past as the future, noting that the day marked the sixth anniversary of his first election as president.
"It's been six very good years, very good years for our country," he said.
Pub Date: 11/04/98