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Weighing the Chances

Michael J. Ring

Two months ago, the Democrats were all smiles on Capitol Hill. Buoyed by a popular president and agitated by Republican defeats of such legislation as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill and the national tobacco settlement, the Democrats were winning the war of ideas in America. While they still faced an uphill battle to reclaim legislative power, regaining the House was a definite possibility.

What a difference two months have made. The Monica Lewinsky immunity deal, President Bill Clinton's videotaped testimony, leaks about devious sexual behavior, the delivery of the Starr report - this case has reached a state of chaos, accelerating and spiraling out of control.

Republican reaction to the Starr report has ranged from vocal calls for resignation or impeachment from arch-conservatives such as Representative Bob Barr (R-Ga.) to publicly measured criticism (but likely private glee) from the congressional leadership.

On the other side of the aisle, meanwhile, reaction has ranged tremendously. One Democrat, Representative Paul McHale (Penn.) has called for Clinton's resignation, but he is checking out of the House next January and faces no political consequences for such a statement. Liberals such as California's Maxine Waters and Massachusetts' Barney Frank have been vocal in defending the President and criticizing the tactics of the independent counsel's office and House Republican leadership. But obviously Democrats in safe districts with token opposition this fall have nothing to fear in standing by the President.

The real political question is how the fallout from the Clinton crisis will affect the "middle Democrats," those in the moderate-to-conservative wing of the party and those in tough reelection fights. These are the Democrats who whenever asked about Clinton look like deer in the headlights, never knowing what the political consequences of any comment might be. These Democrats know full well every comment they make and every comment the White House makes will be tacked to them in this election. And while there are still six weeks to November 3, this election cycle's prospects for Democratic candidates look bleaker with each passing day.

The Democrats never had a realistic chance of winning the five seats in the Senate needed to revert that body to Democratic control, but, after the events of recent months, it is likely the Republicans will add to their margins. The Clinton crisis has jeopardized Democrats' chances of holding on to seats in close races and of picking up seats that several months back were considered winnable.

In South Carolina, arguably the most conservative state in the union, a Democratic incumbent is in serious trouble. The moderate, long-serving incumbent Ernest "Fritz" Hollings holds a narrow lead and has been unable to vanquish Representative Bob Inglis and his upstart campaign. Inglis has been very critical of the President, calling for him to resign, and fighting in the House Judiciary Committee to include sexually explicit details or to cite reasons for the deletions of such in the materials to be released by the House Judiciary Committee this week. In a state that never cast its electoral votes for Clinton, the president's escapades can only help Inglis as he tries to unseat Hollings.

One state to the north, Democrats thought this spring and summer that they had a decent chance to topple an incumbent. Cenrist, telegenic John Edwards, who has made HMO reform the top issue of his campaign, was running close with the conservative, contentious incumbent Lauch Faircloth. In a state where being a Democrat is a political handicap, the ongoing Clinton saga will probably give Faircloth enough ammunition to outlast this challenge.

No senator has it worse than California's Barbara Boxer. Not only is she wed to the president through party affiliation, but also her daughter is married to the brother of Hillary Clinton. She has been much more reserved in criticism of the President than California's other senator, the Democrat Diane Feinstein, and with ties through marriage to the Clintons, Boxer is perhaps the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent this year.

On the House side, the stories are less notable for particular names and faces, but the plots are the same. Moderate Democrats representing conservative-leaning districts in the South and Midwest are forced either to forsake the most powerful member of their own party or risk going down with Clinton's ship.

The results of this November's elections will motivate largely the reaction of the Democratic Party toward Clinton and dictate the future of his presidency. It's not Republican pressure and criticism that will cause Clinton to buckle and resign; rather, it will take a number of members of his own party to call for resignation before he even considers the option. In the impeachment process, it will take 67 votes in the Senate to convict Clinton and oust him from office. Some of those votes will have to come from Democrats.

If the Democrats can emerge from this election relatively unscathed, the congressional moderates, those who will ultimately decide Clinton's fate, will probably be forgiving and lenient. Clinton will survive in office and complete his term with a symbolic punishment, such as a censure. If the Democrats lose three to four Senate seats and fifteen to twenty House seats, however, then the troubles of Clinton will have shadowed everyone else in the party. The foot soldiers in the party will plot a palace coup. And the words "President Gore" will come into use long before January 20, 2001.