Posted on March 21, 1994 in Washington Watch
With the Whitewater controversy still growing in scope, President Clinton’s 1994 legislative and electoral agenda appears to be facing serious problems.
Initially, Whitewater was about nothing more than a failed Arkansas land deal in which the Clintons were investors. As I noted in last week’s column, Whitewater was initially a complicated affair, involving a possible conflict of interest and a question of unpaid taxes. But with the way White House staffers have (mis)handled the issue, it has grown to include questions of White House meddling in a federal investigation and charges that there is an attempted “cover-up” of Clinton’s wrong-doings.
With the Senate has voting this week to hold hearings on Whitewater and with a procession of top Clinton aides being called before a Grand Jury, the Clinton Administration is seeing the minor Arkansas affair grow into a major national scandal that threatens the ability of the President to frame the national debate – which is especially dangerous in this Congressional election year.
In this context, the first victim of Whitewater appears to be the bipartisan spirit that was beginning to emerge at the end of 1993. It was strong Republican support that produced the majority of votes for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the President’s anti-crime bill. These victories gave Clinton a boost in the public opinion polls, which he hoped would carry him to victory in the two major legislative battles of 1994: health care and welfare reform.
But bipartisan spirit Congress enjoyed in 1993 has disappeared in early 1994, because the November elections offer the Republicans an opportunity to win Senate and Congressional seats away from the Democrats and enhance their hand in the government. The Republicans have seized on Whitewater as an issue they can use to challenge the President, they have issued daily calls for Congressional hearings and accused the White House of impropriety. In many ways, this Republican challenge is similar to what the Democrat-controlled legislatures did to the Reagan and Bush Administrations.
The Democrats are under pressure and have responded to the Republicans with attacks of their own. Last weekend at the meeting of the Democratic National Committee, Democratic leaders charged that Republicans were pressing Whitewater for partisan political reasons in an effort to weaken the President. The Democrats further called into question the ethics of each of the Republican leaders who are attacking the President.
The acrimony that all this has produced seriously threatens the ability of the White House to moved its legislative agenda forward. In this charged atmosphere it is unlikely that the President can create the bipartisan coalition he needs to pass his programs.
Given that 1994 is an election year and that partisan tensions were bound to erupt, it was necessary for the President to move his agenda early in the year. Each week lost to Whitewater moves the country that much closer to the November elections and makes it less likely the Republicans will support a Democratic initiative; or that the President will be able to create the public support and momentum necessary to convince conservative Democrats to make the hard of decisions to vote for his very complex health care bill and pass his very tough welfare reform package.
There is a tragedy in all of this. Former Senator Barry Goldwater, a leading Republicans (because he was the party’s 1964 Presidential nominee and the ideological leader who is credited with laying the ground for Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980), this week urged the Republicans to “get off the President’s back” and said that “needs of the country are greater than either the Republican or Democratic party.”
Even without Whitewater, however, the November elections were going to be hotly contested. A great deal is at stake.
Since then end of World War II, which marks the beginning of the modern era of American politics, the average mid-term election costs the President’s party 23 seats in the House of Representatives and 3 Senate seats. This year, however, there is reason to believe that the Democrats may do even worse than the average, so both parties are working exceptionally hard.
First, the anti-incumbent mood which brought so many new faces to Washington in 1992 is still very strong. And while Ross Perot’s star has dimmed, the issues he raised and the anger he stirred against `those folks in Washington’ is still quite present. The term limits movement, which calls for laws to limit the number of years a politician could remain in office, is another sign of the anti-incumbent sentiment and is gaining momentum – even Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley is involved in a lawsuit against a term limit law passed by his state. Given all this, with 110 new members in 1992 and already 40 retirements announced this year, there is a possibility that half the next Congress could be new since Clinton’s election just two years ago – an unprecedented change.
An even bigger factor in the possible change this year is the simple fact that the Democrats have more to lose. Of the 34 Senate seats up for reelection this year, the Democrats must defend 21 of them. Political analysts have identified seven seats which seem to be in particular jeopardy, and six of them belong to Democrats. Of course, March is a long way from November, but there is a strong possibility that the Republicans stand to gain 3-5 seats in the Senate when the new class is sworn in in 1995.
In the House, many Democrats are sitting in a very precarious position, having survived in 1992 largely because George Bush performed so poorly at the top of the Republican ticket. The redistricting process of 1990 had been expected to bring 30-40 new Republicans to the House of Representatives, but the elections only brought fewer than 15 – and most political observers expect Republicans to take better advantage of the more favorable terrain created by redistricting than they did last time.
If the Republicans do score major gains this November, they could make the remaining two years of Clinton’s term very difficult. As it is now, the President cannot bring in all the Democrats to vote for his proposals, but things could be considerably worse. Specifically, although even a 5 seat gain in the Senate would leave the Republicans in a 49-51 minority, but Senator Richard Shelby, a Democrat from Alabama, votes with the Republicans far more often than he votes with the Democrats – and he is seldom alone. In the House, the loss of any seats threatens the ability of the Democrats to move legislation, because the Democrats’ large (257-176 majority) is in fact much smaller because the left and right wings of the party are so far apart that they seldom vote together.
But though past and recent history paint a gloomy picture for the Democrats, there are some encouraging signs. The polls are now showing a surprising swing to the Democratic party. This move is predominantly because most of the most pressing issues on the public’s agenda now are issues on which Democrats have traditionally scored well: health care, education, job creation, creating political change, and a majority even have more confidence that the Democrats will handle welfare reform better than the Republicans – which is a significant shift from just a few years ago. The only two issues (out of 12) on which the Republicans score better than the Democrats are foreign affairs and foreign trade, which are not very important to voters right now. Only on the question of taxes do the Republicans score better than the Democrats on an important issue.
Democrats might even be able to capitalize on the anti-incumbent sentiment because they are the party most identified with “change” – the issue that was the battle cry of Ross Perot and his legion of voters in 1992. Also in the Democrats’ favor is the fact that the economy is in good shape and voter tend to give the President and his party credit for a good economy. Further, Clinton – the Democrats’ chief spokesman – has been hitting the key issues of the day (the deficit, health care, crime and welfare reform) in a very visible way for the past two years.
It is only March and the November elections are 8 months away, but already there are a series of fascinating political stories developing across the U.S. Winter isn’t over yet, but it’s already getting hot.
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