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With Democrats Defecting And Starr Reporting, Is Clinton A Goner?

Washington Outlook


Call it sin spin. On Sept. 9, Bill Clinton summoned House Democrats to a White House pep talk designed to spike speculation about impeachment. On the surface, the results were felicitous. After another of his sequential apologies for moral malfeasance, the beleaguered President got Democratic leaders to face the cameras and intone that impeachment talk was premature.

But under this veneer of unity lurks spreading Democratic panic. Now that Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr has sent Congress a damaging report on alleged White House misconduct, Clinton's Presidency is in jeopardy. Hill Democrats increasingly worry about being dragged down with him.

At best, Democrats hope that GOP attempts to dump Clinton over the tawdry details of the Starr report will spark an angry backlash. To complete this dreamy scenario, Democrats' denunciations of the President will enable them to ride out the fall elections with minimal losses.

The worst-case scenario: Vengeful voters spurn Democrats after Republicans turn the election into a referendum on Clinton's morality. That fear is buttressed by a new poll conducted by Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake. It found that moral issues have surpassed crime and education to become Americans' top concern.

If sustained, that could translate into big GOP gains. Republicans could capture a filibuster-proof majority of 60 in the Senate, pick up 15 seats in the House, and increase their hold on statehouses. Potentially, the scandal is "an atomic bomb hitting the party," says Democratic consultant Brian Lunde.POLICY ROUT. If Armageddon comes, the policy environment in Washington will be radically transformed. In the short run, a weakened Clinton will be in a poor position to bait Republicans into a self-destructive government shutdown. And he will be forced to back away from his opposition to the $75 billion election-year tax cut Republicans are pushing.

Longer term, if Republicans gain strength in the new Congress, a President struggling to escape the grinding machinery of impeachment will be hard-pressed to push any policy initiatives and win confirmation of key nominees. Suddenly, Republican priorities such as a ban on late-term abortions, faster development of a missile-defense system, and reform of the legal system could gain veto-proof support.

It is this nightmare scenario that is leading some Democrats to distance themselves from the President. And the tougher the race, the greater the distance. Taking their cue from Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman's impassioned Sept. 3 denunciation of Clinton's ethics, Democrats are joining the condemnation chorus.

On Sept. 8, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, whose daughter is married to a brother of Hillary Rodham Clinton, branded Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky "immoral." Senator Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina said he was fed up with the "dishonesty of the President." On the same day, Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening boycotted a Presidential visit to a Silver Spring (Md.) elementary school.

Clinton wouldn't have to worry so much about his base if his ties to Hill Democrats were stronger. But many still blame him for losing control of Congress in 1994. Other party stalwarts resent Clinton's tactic of playing liberals against GOP conservatives to build support for his centrist "third way." Now that Clinton is in the ethical soup, "there's no loyalty," says one senior House staffer. "This guy made the calculation in January that he could lie and get others to lie for him. No one's willing to stand up for him."

Clinton has more to worry about than mutiny in the ranks. Wall Street's roller-coaster ride has raised the specter of slower growth, layoffs, and a recession. If the economy slips, his ability to wage a two-front war against vengeful Republicans and renegade Democrats will ebb.

Even global crises aren't helping Clinton. Meltdowns in Russia and Asia have critics ranging from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) questioning whether the President is up to the task of global leadership. Moynihan's answer: speedy consideration of impeachment.

Not all Democrats feel that way, of course. "We're acting like scared bunnies," sighs a top strategist. And Senator Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) decries the "rush to judgment." Given Clinton's Comeback Kid record, it is probably a bit early to write him off. But if the President's weakness turns into a party rout in November, Democrats will be looking for a fall guy. The search will inevitably lead them to the Oval Office.EDITED BY OWEN ULLMANN

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