Democrats’ Dilemma: Step in It, or Throw It?

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

September 13, 1998

In “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy told the story of Sen. Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, whose vote saved President Andrew Johnson from being removed from office in 1868. “I almost literally looked down into my open grave,” Ross said as he recounted how he felt casting his vote. “Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.”

Members of Congress, but especially Democrats, confront a choice this weekend as stark and potentially as deadly as the one Ross described so eloquently. “It’s staggering we are at this juncture,” said one depressed House Democrat who has been a strong supporter of Clinton.

Before independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report was delivered to Congress, many Democrats already thought they were staring into their political graves. A veteran Democratic senator confided to an aide that he thought congressional Democrats were dead not only in November’s elections, but for the foreseeable future.

Clinton’s fate rests in the hands of this gloomy bunch. Over the coming days, his ability to fight back against Starr’s report depends on whether the vast majority of Democrats in Congress stand with him—or at least hold their tongues. A large and rapid movement of Democrats to the exits will validate Starr’s findings and make the president’s political position untenable.

And remember: Clinton’s relationship with this group is complex and difficult. Many Democrats on the Hill blame him for their losses in the House and Senate in 1994 and 1996. Most Democrats are at least as appalled as Republicans at the president’s behavior and recklessness.

Yet Democratic leaders have struggled to contain the harsh criticism of the president set off by Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s powerful condemnation 10 days ago, more for their own sakes than his. Criticize him, they said, but not too harshly. Seven weeks before an election is a bad time to ditch your leader, unless you have to.

The Democrats’ core problem is the growing gulf between the self-interest of individual candidates and the collective interest of the party. Democrats may lose in November if they are seen as too close to this president. But they may also lose if their attacks on him further erode his support.

Herein lies President Clinton’s best hope for hanging on. If his approval ratings do not collapse utterly this week or next, the dynamics of this story could change rapidly. That’s because we are about to have the first Impeachment Election. If he’s still standing in October, Clinton will use this campaign as a way of clinging to power. And whether the Democrats like it or not, they may have to help him.

Their early response to the Starr report seemed to bear this out. The president did not suffer an instant deterioration of his political base. Initially, at least, Democrats were relieved that however damaging the report, Starr had not come up with truly new charges.

Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate were all no-shows. Salacious reports about the president’s sexual activities with Monica Lewinsky were there in unflinching detail. Thus, the arguments this report will unleash are largely the same debates that have already raged for seven months.

The words of House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.) after the report became public were at least modestly reassuring for the White House. “The central question we’re going to have to grapple with,” Bonior said, “is whether these personal problems outweigh his performance—and he’s done a very good job.”

But such words do not disguise the fact that Democrats have no good choices. In personal and moral terms, many Democrats are torn between anger at the president and intense discomfort—in some cases rage—at the process by which the president’s behavior became public.

For reasons of principle, electoral calculation or both, many Democrats have felt a need over the last week or so to follow Lieberman’s lead in issuing strong condemnations of Clinton that went beyond the usual criticisms of his behavior.

The tougher statements only deepened the sense of crisis surrounding his presidency. They also weakened Clinton’s ability to attack the Starr report’s exclusive focus on the Lewinsky matter, made it electorally necessary for more Democrats to attack the president and allowed Republicans to stand silently by, relishing the fact that Bill Clinton’s fate—and not health care, Social Security or education—could be the principal issue in the fall elections.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of Clinton’s staunchest defenders, cast the Democrats’ problem this way: “The ideal situation for every Democrat is that every other Democrat but him or her would defend the president.”

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, made the same point in the language of his trade. “Democrats are much better off going into the election if Bill Clinton is at 60-percent approval than if he’s at 40 percent,” he said. “Some Democrats may think they might gain something by distancing themselves from him. But they’re hurt, too, if he goes down to 40 percent.”

One House Democrat said this idea is provoking an intense debate among colleagues over the costs and benefits of putting distance between themselves and Clinton. The immediate benefits are obvious. The cost, he said, is this: “If you walk away, do you lose base voters? If you turn on the president, will the base turn on you?”

The Starr report did not clarify the Democrats’ choice much—but that may be good news for the president. The report did contain some potentially damaging new details on obstruction and perjury charges, but as Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) put it, “There’s no smoking gun.” Had Starr made new charges on the other matters under investigation, or broken substantial new ground on the Lewinsky matter, the way was prepared for a new Democratic exodus from the president’s side.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff observed that Democrats are in “a very, very negative loop” that sends the message: “Oh my God, the ship’s going down!” One measure of whether the president’s condition has temporarily stabilized—or has worsened—is the posture that Democrats take this morning on the Sunday talk shows.

Because Starr’s report is humiliating but not necessarily decisive, many Democrats may be willing to hang on a bit longer. Begging and cajoling them to do so is the president’s central goal now.

And Democrats such as Mellman, who has done intense talk-show duty on the president’s behalf, were quick to turn the Starr report into an argument on the president’s behalf. “I think Americans are going to say that this was done to debase the president for purely partisan political reasons,” he said. “They’re going to say, ‘I can’t believe [they] spent $40 million of [our] money to read this. It’s pornography.’”

Sure, this is a rationalization, but look at it this way: Democrats were mighty pleased to gain any new sound bites in the wake of the Starr report.

A House Democrat who asked not to be named said that if public opinion continued to oppose the president’s impeachment, the Democrats might roll the dice: They could present voters with an alternative—at least in districts, presumably outside the South, where this argument might work. The slogan would be straightforward: “Vote Democratic for censure and moving on, or vote Republican for impeachment and months more of this.”

Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future, argues that this strategy may work to mobilize Democratic voters, but only if it is linked with issues such as a patient’s bill of rights, education and the environment. “The argument is that the Republicans are delaying it and continuing it and wallowing in it because it distracts attention from real issues,” he said.

Anti-Clinton Republicans, Borosage said, are ready to vote in droves. “This isn’t about the middle anymore,” he said. “It’s all about the base.”

Borosage and other Democrats are under no illusions: This alternative strategy could vaporize if the people are deciding as you read this that Clinton has hopelessly degraded himself and his office; that they simply cannot stand to look at him any more; that he is too reckless and untrustworthy; that his apologies, even the effective one at Friday’s White House prayer breakfast, are the insincere pleadings of a cornered man. If that happens fast, Democrats will bolt. One thing for sure: A whole lot of Democrats are fed up with defending him.

But the strange logic of the Impeachment Election could force them to do just that. The country could be in for a wild ride. And Bill Clinton, who relishes any election campaign, may be about to wage another one—his last, his most important, and his most desperate.