Newsreal: Can't live with him, can't live without him

Democrats won't feel too kindly toward their president in his latest hour of peril. But, says a veteran congressional correspondent, they still need him -- and so might the Republicans.

Published January 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- If President Clinton's convoluted health-care plan and other zig-zags of his first two years in the White House contributed to the massacre of congressional Democrats in 1994, imagine what Democrats, especially those running for election this year, are thinking now.

Not good thoughts.

The party of a second-term president usually gets blasted in midterm elections anyway. And that's without being stuck with a president accused of having an affair with a young subordinate and then suborning perjury.

Prior to the latest eruption, Democrats were trying to concoct a message for the 1998 elections, and Clinton was busy blitzing the country with one policy proposal after another, hoping to define the homestretch of his presidency while assisting Democrats running for the House and Senate next November. What's the message today? The Democrats want to do more for child care? You can fill in the punch line.

But the Democrats need the president. He is the one with the megaphone. Neither Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle nor House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt have the platform to pitch their case to the American public. Perhaps more importantly, the president is the cash-cow of the party. The Democrats are still millions of dollars in the hole, a result of the various campaign finance controversies. A dead-duck president means the money dries up.

Suppose the worst occurs: Compelling evidence emerges that the president lied, under oath, in his deposition in the Paula Jones case and pressured ex-White House intern Monica Lewinsky to lie in her sworn affidavit. The Republicans in Congress would have every right to consider impeachment. What do congressional Democrats do?

It's hard to picture them, especially in an election year, rushing to the defense of any president accused of "Melrose Place"-like sexual chicanery and otherwise acting in stunningly reckless fashion. And Clinton in particular, with his "triangulation" approach, has not engendered great loyalty among congressional Democrats. They are still steaming over the loss of Congress and hold Clinton partly to blame for it. Many believe they were close to winning back the House in 1996 -- until Clinton's fund-raising peccadilloes became public. Should the allegations prove true, could you fault Democrats for not standing by their man? What candidate would want a picture of Clinton with his arm around him or, especially, her? Besides, where might Clinton find the time for a party fund-raiser, between the Paula Jones trial and possible impeachment proceedings.

However, congressional Republicans may not be so eager to rush to exploit the matter. There's the old rule of politics: When your opponent is self-immolating, do nothing. And why consider impeachment, if that gives Al Gore, who would take over the White House, a head-start 2000 campaign. A long, drawn-out affair -- one that might affect both the 1998 and 2000 elections -- could be more desirable for the GOP (and less desirable for Gore).

But don't underestimate the hatred of Clinton that resides within the conservative movement. Several Republicans may not be able to help themselves. And it should be remembered that, as of today, nothing is proven. It may turn out to be a scam, or a case of abnormal psychology. Or perhaps the charges will go unresolved.

Still, the stakes are enormous, not just for the immediate future of the president, the vice president and Democratic members of Congress. In recent weeks, Clinton has tried to place on the national stage a host of major policy prescriptions, from increasing education funding to a modest expansion of Medicare. Who in politics is paying any attention to them now? How many Americans will be paying attention to the content of the president's State of the Union speech next Tuesday? Forty-one million Americans without health insurance? Boring! Clinton trysting with an intern? Roll out the media army.

It's understandable. The story certainly is a talker. But if Clinton did indeed behave in such a caddish and illegal fashion, he's done much more than place himself in danger. He has threatened his party, his policies and every principle he claims motivated him to go into politics in the first place. And that elevates this episode from a trashy, can-you-believe-it miniseries to a tragic national drama of multiple implications.

By David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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Al Gore Bill Clinton Democratic Party Healthcare Reform Republican Party