WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- In purely political terms, the resignation under fire of Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy could hardly come at a less auspicious time for President Clinton and the Democratic Party.
The White House and party leaders already are well aware that they are on the defensive in the midterm elections five weeks away and likely to suffer substantial losses in the Senate and House of Representatives. And, to a large degree, that prospect has been fueled by the perception of the president himself as less competent and less straightforward than he should be.
Now Clinton and other Democrats have been pushed into explaining an ethical lapse by a member of the Cabinet who was particularly prominent as a leading African-American supporter of Clinton in winning the Democratic nomination in 1992.
It has happened, moreover, just when Democratic strategists believed they had an opportunity to change the subject in the campaign and regain the offensive by attacking the Republicans on their "Contract with America" gimmick and their failure to provide specifics on how they would cut the federal deficit, increase defense spending and lower taxes at the same time.
Instead, they find themselves obliged to explain how such a situation could develop in the administration of a president who laid so much emphasis 21 months ago on how a Clinton government would be cleaner than a hound's tooth after all those years of Republican corruption and cronyism.
The nature of the allegations against Espy makes the situation particularly awkward for Clinton. The agriculture secretary has been accused of and has resolutely denied taking favors from companies whose business practices he had authority to regulate. The largess ostensibly bestowed upon him was mostly small potatoes. But the point is still the same that a federal official allowed himself to appear to be indebted to the wrong people.
What makes that particularly awkward for the White House is that it is the same kind of "special treatment" from regulated entities that Clinton himself as governor of Arkansas has been accused of accepting in the Whitewater case. You can be sure it is a parallel that, however inexact, will not be overlooked by the Republicans or those super-conservative radio talk show hosts.
No one who understands American politics believes that the Espy resignation will, in itself, have any direct influence on the outcome of the Nov. 8 elections. Nobody can imagine voters going to the polls to vote for a Republican House candidate in North Carolina to register their outrage about a Cabinet member getting some free tickets to a Dallas Cowboys game or whatever.
But the baggage being carried by Democrats in this election already has been heavy. Here in the 5th District, for example, the president has an approval rating near 30 percent, hardly the kind of stature that would make him an asset for the Democratic candidate for the House, state Sen. Sandy Sands.
That weakness is reinforced whenever there is any evidence to reinforce perceptions either of ineptitude or politics-as-usual in the Clinton administration. The Espy affair manages to touch both sore spots.
The problem for the Democrats is that the pervasive negativism about the national administration may make it impossible to generate the kind of enthusiasm needed for a heavy Democratic turnout.
In fact, the kind of thing that has happened with Espy can happen to even the most capable and effective president. At any time, any president has dozens of people whom he has appointed to high-level positions and who instantly have the potential for embarrassing him. Indeed, it has happened to every president since World War II.
All that can reasonably be asked is that the president act to clean up the situation as quickly as possible. The president appears to have met that requirement.
So it may be valid to say that blaming Clinton and the Democratic Party for the Espy affair is essentially unfair. It could have happened to anybody, and unquestionably it will happen again to presidents of both parties. But nobody ever said politics is always fair.