What Clinton Has To Fear From A Landslide

If the polls are right, Bill Clinton will bask in a glorious reelection romp on Nov. 5. But if history is any guide, he'd better savor the moment--the next four years may be all downhill. "If Clinton were a stock, I'd sell on Nov. 4," says Republican pundit William Kristol.

Sour grapes? Perhaps. But there's no question that a second-term curse smites most winning incumbents. The common denominator: hubris, which leads reelected leaders to overreach and misread their mandates. The woes are usually compounded by heavy losses for the President's party in the subsequent congressional midterm elections--40 House seats and 7 Senate seats on average since 1938.

Precedents range from the sharp backlash over Franklin D. Roosevelt's drive to pack the Supreme Court to Richard M. Nixon's downfall over Watergate to the hobbling of Ronald Reagan's White House by the Iran-contra scandal. "The danger of arrogance is greatest when you have a not-too-popular President who wins a landslide due to a weak opponent," says Princeton University political scientist Fred I. Greenstein, who notes parallels between Nixon's and Clinton's scandal-ridden reelection bids. Reform Party champion Ross Perot predicts that Clinton is heading for "a Watergate II" that could paralyze his Presidency.

LOOSE ENDS. The President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton do seem vulnerable on the ethics front. Special Prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr is pursuing irregularities involving the Clintons' Arkansas land deals, the firing of White House travel-office employees, and the collection of 900 Federal Bureau of Investigation files on Republicans. Now, the Clintonites face a new furor over suspicious contributions from foreign donors. Frets one Presidential adviser: "There are too many things hanging out there."

If Republicans retain control of Congress, look for a new probe of Democratic fund-raising, more inquiries into Filegate, and hearings on unproven GOP claims that "Big Labor" funneled illegal cash to Democratic congressional candidates. "Given how upset Republicans are that ethics charges didn't resonate in the campaign," says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, "they'll want to continue these inquiries for the duration." Bush White House counsel C. Boyden Gray figures that if the GOP hangs on and pushes forward with massive investigations, "Clinton will be debilitated."

It's not just scandal that could bedevil the President. The economy's six-year streak without a recession can't go on forever. "This is already the third-longest expansion on record, so the odds favor a slump before 2000," says DRI/McGraw-Hill economist David A. Wyss. Even some Administration officials privately agree. Says one: "We're due for some [economic] bad news. We haven't cured the business cycle."

Then there are foreign-policy traps: a fragile truce in Bosnia, rising Mideast tensions, and Russia's shaky democratic reforms. Any could blow up into a second-term crisis to confound the President. Says one Dole campaign official: "About the only consolation I have over losing the election is thinking about how dreadful a second Clinton term will be."

Of course, catastrophe isn't preordained. Clinton is a master pol who has bounced back from the brink many times. But since humility isn't exactly a hallmark of Clinton & Co., he'll have to be extra nimble to avoid the historical pitfalls that lie in wait for two-time victors. "I worry," cautions W. Bowman Cutter, a former top Clinton economic official. "The White House people are going to win much bigger than they ever thought possible. A new burst of arrogance could destroy them."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.