Had all 38 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted to bring the administration's anti-crime bill to the floor of the House for final action, the measure would have passed. Instead, the bill failed by a 225-to-210 margin as 11 African-American representatives (not including Baltimore's Kweisi Mfume or Prince George's Albert Wynn) found themselves in a bizarre coalition with the National Rifle Association, gunning-for-Clinton Republicans and conservative Democrats.
This was a stunning defeat for the administration, one that instantly put President Clinton's health care reform crusade in greater jeopardy and threatened to undercut congressional approval of a new world trading system. Nothing fails like failure in the power struggles of Washington. When the legislative branch no longer fears a president, when the goodies he offers or the threats he makes cannot turn the votes of swing lawmakers, the White House agenda is in real trouble.
Angry as he was, Mr. Clinton was careful to recognize that the rebellious black congressmen had voted on "principle." Their caucus had chafed as congressional committees lengthened the list of federal crimes subject to the death penalty and rejected a provision to protect death-row inmates from racial discrimination sentencing. Nevertheless, caucus chairman Mfume was both realistic and right in giving a higher priority to a ban on 19 assault weapons that are ravaging inner-city neighborhoods and in backing a $7.6 billion "crime prevention" fund to deal with root causes.
Ideologically and substantively, there was nothing binding the African-American nay-voters with the white conservatives who blocked the administration bill. If demoralized House Democratic leaders try again to bring the measure to the floor, they could perhaps woo some black votes by shortening the show-case list of federal capital crimes.
After the worst legislative defeat of the Clinton presidency, the administration has vowed to fight back. But for the moment, it has minimal clout on Capitol Hill, where Mr. Clinton's decline in public opinion polls has been duly noted and Democratic incumbents are shunning presidential coattails in their re-election campaigns.
Until his setback on the crime measure, Mr. Clinton still retained a certain "comeback kid" mystique. While he lost his ill-advised $16 billion "stimulus" package early last year, he then racked up far more important victories with his economic plan and the North American Free Trade Agreement. As the anti-crime bill seemed to move within reach of final approval this year, this was seen as an adroit move by the Democrats to capture a traditional Republican issue. Also, as a prelude to a final push for health care reform.
No more. Perhaps Clinton political strategists may try to mug the Republicans for mugging the anti-crime bill as November elections approach. But if gridlock has returned, Democrats (black and white) have to accept ultimate responsibility.