Democrats running scared

The democrats are quivering with fear about their future post-zippergate.

Published August 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Now that Monica Lewinsky has delivered her long-awaited account of her alleged affair with President Clinton to Kenneth Starr's grand jury, a deep sense of uncertainty and foreboding has taken grip among Democrats over the long-term damage that the party may suffer as a result of the sex scandal.

Though Democratic Congress members are showing demonstrative signs of support for Clinton as he prepares for his own grand jury testimony on Aug. 17, many are feeling uncomfortably tentative when it comes to their reelection strategies only months before the fall midterm elections. Moreover, a host of unanswered questions about the president's relationship with Lewinsky, coupled with the public's unpredictable reaction should an affair be proven, has created another zone of political darkness as the party looks toward the presidential election in 2000.

"The reality is we are in uncharted waters," says one Democratic pollster, who asked not to be identified. "We are certainly where no human being has gone before. Nobody can say with any certainty what will happen under any scenario."

To minimize those uncertainties, the clear preference among lawmakers, party activists and elders is for a presidential mea culpa if Clinton has lied, and for a political denouement that will end the Lewinsky scandal "with a whimper, not a bang," as one congressman put it. Absent such an apology, Democrats regard Clinton's testimony on Aug. 17 as some kind of political watershed, both for him and the party.

"Once he's testified, we will have turned a corner," said another pollster, adding fretfully: "Of course we don't where that corner will lead."

A major question for the Democrats is when Starr will send his report to Congress on his four-year-long criminal investigation of the president. Some Republicans are now calling for Starr to submit it before the midterm election, hoping it will discredit Clinton enough to cripple his ability to raise money for the Democrats. Reflecting Democratic concerns, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt has warned Starr he would be making a "grave mistake" if he submits his report before the election. "That would be very partisan, very unfair and demeaning to the process that I think all of us believe is important to this country," he said.

Amid all this uncertainty over the president's future, some in the party are taking temporary shelter in polling figures that show that, despite the fact that a majority of Americans believe Clinton had a sexual affair with Lewinsky and lied about it, they still continue to give the president high job approval ratings.

"I was in Florida doing focus groups earlier this week, and we asked people to assume the worst about the Lewinsky matter, and people just didn't care," says Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster. "They really think this is about sex. They disapprove of Clinton's behavior, but they think it's between him and his wife. Even on the question of perjury, they think he shouldn't have been asked about it in the first place."

If Clinton's polls remain high, adds Mark Mellman, another party pollster, Democratic incumbents probably will not be punished for the president's alleged sins in the fall midterms.

But party strategists say they have abandoned any expectation of recapturing Democratic control of the House from the Republicans, and they blame the media's intense coverage of the Lewinsky affair for their dashed hopes. "The static from this scandal has drowned out all other issues," complains Garin. "It's impossible to have an argument about tobacco, saving Social Security, education and health care because the noise from this scandal is simply impenetrable. So it's impossible to make a coherent political argument why voters should be for Democrats instead of Republicans."

As the Democrats squirm uneasily through the uncertainty of the weeks and months ahead, party spinmeisters are trying to soothe concerns with some political logic that would have been unthinkable in the past. Says one Democratic consultant: "This is a president who, over time, has completely lost his moral authority. But in almost every other respect, he hasn't lost a thing. And he hasn't been an in a situation where he has had to call on his moral authority. So his political importance has not been diminished."

That wishful formulation already is being challenged in the wake of the
terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam. In such
moments, as counter-terrorism experts begin the long process of finding those
responsible, moral authority is often all a president can bring to soothe the
nation's agony. And over the horizon, more challenges to the United States are
looming -- the deepening economic crisis in Asia, a collapsing Russian
economy, a faltering Middle East peace process and now a new confrontation
with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. If Clinton, as commander in chief, needs
to send U.S, troops into harm's way, he'll need the moral authority to make
that decision.

But Democratic strategists no longer appear to be thinking about
Clinton's political legacy. One prominent consultant, who asked not to be named, spun
out what he described as the probable outcome of the Lewinsky affair: Sometime before Aug. 17 -- but no sooner than Aug. 16 -- Clinton will make a public apology. After Starr submits his report, Republicans in Congress, facing the force of Clinton's popularity, their vulnerability should their own sexual escapades come to light and the judgment of history, will opt not for impeachment but for some form of censure. To placate the inevitable Republican uproar in Congress, Clinton may have to apologize again. The final years of Clinton's presidency will be the same as the end of the Reagan presidency after the Iran-contra affair. That is to say, it will limp along to its conclusion.

"Look, the public is going to think Clinton's a schmuck," this consultant said. "But if the economy keeps humming along, they'll be willing to let him ride out his term."

That may count as good news to some Democrats, but it cannot be a welcome scenario to Vice President Al Gore as he prepares his bid for the party's presidential nomination for 2000. Gore's fortunes are tied to Clinton, and if Clinton, having survived too many body blows, comes to resemble a political cripple in his last two years, Gore will be the big loser, say political analysts. "What counts in a presidential election is whether people are in a mood for a change," says Mellman. "If they are, it's obviously not going to be good for Gore."

Perhaps the biggest fear gnawing at Democrats these days is their concern over another, even more serious scandal looming in the distance -- the campaign finance morass.

Republicans in the House and Senate have been pressuring Attorney General Janet Reno to recommend an independent counsel to investigate alleged campaign finance abuses by Clinton, Gore and senior Democratic Party officials -- a demand she has resisted so far. In the Senate, moves have begun to compel Reno to act, and in an extraordinary confrontation Thursday, a House committee voted to cite Reno for contempt of Congress for resisting its subpoena to turn over reports from two subordinates, including FBI Director Louis Freeh, that recommend the appointment of an independent prosecutor to look into the campaign finance allegations.

Reno has called the subpoena "a form of political tampering that no prosecutor in America can accept." She also argues that giving the House the reports, which provide a blueprint of the Justice Department's investigation, would blow the probe. She had asked for three more weeks to review the reports and has not ruled out a recommendation for an independent counsel. If she makes such a recommendation, Clinton, Gore and others could be asked to explain how money from Chinese intelligence found its way into party coffers in 1996. Even the best Democratic consultants anticipate problems spinning their way out of that one.

"There are not many people in America who believe that their well-being has been jeopardized in any way by the president's conduct in the Lewinsky affair," says one prominent pollster. "Sure, there are people who feel they can't watch the news with the kids, but in terms of real well-being, most people are not affected. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about campaign finance. That's going to be a tough one."

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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