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Clinton the Winner in Status Quo Election

Michael J. Ring

With only a few days left in the 1998 election campaign, it appears any predictions of earth-shaking transformations in the political landscape will come to naught. The Democratic takeover of the House, floated earlier this year before the Independent Counsel's report was issued, is highly unlikely. It also appears that with momentum in key Senate races in California and South Carolina leaning toward the Democrats, and decent odds of a Democratic pickup in New York, that the Republicans will not win the cloture-proof supermajority of 60 in the United States Senate that they desire.

What does this mean for the American voter? Simply put, what you see is what you will get. The years 1999 and 2000 are going to look very similar to 1997 and 1998. Squabbling, gridlock, and eventual compromise will dominate the political landscape. Swift, partisan action will probably not be possible.

Should the status quo hold, then we can declare one huge winner in these midterm elections: President Clinton. Typically, the party in the White House faces anything from a steady bleeding to a violent hemorrhaging in the midterm election cycle. The losses are particularly difficult when the president is in his second term: in 1986, for example, six years through Reagan's term, the Republicans lost control of the Senate.

If the Democrats' losses this year are on the order of only two Senate seats and 10 House seats, then Clinton and the Democrats will have emerged from these elections relatively unscathed. Such results would be good news for Clinton on both a personal and a political front.

In the political realm, little or no Democratic losses in what should be a Republican year will give Clinton a fresh infusion of political capital right at the time the words "lame duck" would otherwise be whispered around Washington. Republican leaders have been loath to challenge Clinton since being blamed for the government shutdown, and an electorate allied with the President would exert significant leverage on Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich to find compromises with the President rather than ram through their own political agenda.

On a personal level, positive results in the congressional elections for the Democrats could save Clinton's hide from impeachment and removal. It will take 67 votes to remove Clinton; some of those votes will have to come from the Democratic Party. Every seat the Republicans fail to gain in next week's election is a Democratic senator who would have to defect from party lines to ratify the impeachment of Clinton. The ability of the Republicans to convince five or six conservative Democrats to defect is probably good; their chances of getting 10 or 11 senators to cross party lines are much, much lower.

A strong Democratic showing in the House elections could be even more beneficial to Clinton, since it could stop impeachment proceedings there before they ever reach the Senate. The vast majority of Democrats, given the current evidence, are unwilling to vote for the president's impeachment. If Americans vote strongly for Democrats next week, the Republican leadership in the House will probably take notice. A slaughter of Democrats, however, gives the right-wingers on the Judiciary Committee free reins to investigate and impeach at will.

A good showing among Democrats in this cycle could also prevent a palace coup in the year 2000. Clinton has made it abundantly clear he wants Vice President Al Gore to be his successor. Many Democrats, though, are excited about the vice president's imminent candidacy. If, despite the presidential scandal and the odds favoring midterm losses, the Democrats hold their own, Clinton will be in a much stronger position within the party to line up endorsements and support for Gore. A poor showing in the elections will only strain the president's already-cool relationship with congressional Democrats. Many of them are thinking of challenging Gore for the presidential nomination in the year 2000, and an apparent and presumed lack of ability by Clinton to hold together the party will only encourage those thoughts.

The election of 1998 has not turned into the referendum on Bill Clinton as predicted by many pundits. Monica Lewinsky has been a non-factor in most close races. Still, the president is clearly the one with the most to gain, and to lose, in the midterm elections. The results next week, which currently look favorable to the president, will be a harbinger of what to expect in the closing act of the Clinton presidency.