WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton pursues a legacy he hopes will place him in the pantheon of Democratic greats, there is -- even putting aside allegations of personal misconduct -- a nagging problem: Despite the booming economy and his sky-high job approval ratings, Clinton's record includes the dubious distinction of presiding over his party's 1994 loss of both houses of Congress.
Four years later, as the 1998 midterm election season gets under way, Washington is wondering what Clinton will do to erase this blemish. Specifically, how great an effort will the president make to help his party recapture the House, where Republicans hold a slim, 11-seat margin and have several vulnerable incumbents?
Those questions are complicated by a number of factors, ranging from the oddly symbiotic relationship between Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich to Vice President Al Gore's rivalry with House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt. The diciest consideration may be the competing demands for political money within the Democratic Party.
"You could make the case that we lost the House in 1994 because of him and that we lost it again in 1996 because of the White Housefund-raising scandal," said one Capitol Hill Democrat active in the party's election efforts.
"If we lose in 1998, there will be people up here who will say it's Clinton's fault again because he wouldn't raise the money we need."
Clinton is not the first president to see his party's majority in Congress disappear. It happened to Dwight D. Eisenhower -- at the same time in his presidency. There was a difference, though: When Congress went Democratic in 1954, it wasn't viewed as a personal repudiation of Eisenhower. In 1994, Republican candidates directly targeted Clinton, whom they tarred as a tax-raising liberal masquerading as a moderate.
Republicans assumed control in Congress sporting their "Contract with America," a reverence for their new House speaker -- and contempt for Clinton. Today, it is conventional wisdom in Washington that Republicans overplayed their hand, but something else happened as well: Even as they engaged in a two-year war of words, the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress knocked out a string of legislative successes: a sweeping anti-crime bill, an overhaul of the welfare system and a series of fiscal decisions that produced tax cuts and a balanced budget.
It was a record that helped both Clinton and the congressional Republicans to victory in 1996 -- and which raises an obvious question for the White House now: Why mess with success?
"Clinton is perhaps the smartest politician the Democrats have had since FDR," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "And he knows that for him to have a House controlled by Gephardt and the left wing of the Democratic Party would be a nightmare."
Clinton's aides don't talk that way publicly, but their suspicions of Gephardt are no secret. Inside the White House, he gets poor marks for loyalty and political judgment. He actively opposed the president on the North American Free Trade Agreement and fast-track trade authority, and sniped at a host of other legislative initiatives signed by Clinton, including the budget bill.
For his part, in a blunt speech in December at Harvard, Gephardt complained that the Democratic Party under Clinton had become a "money machine" instead of an advocate for change.
There is another reason for mixed feelings at the White House about helping Gephardt become speaker: his desire to be president himself. Nobody seems to know -- and Gephardt isn't saying -- whether being speaker would quench his ambition or fuel it.
"You could argue that having him there would be the best thing for Gore," said White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
The spokesman added that, in the end, Democrats are Democrats and the president's preference would be for a Democratic Congress. "This idea that we want to keep Gingrich in power because he's a foil for us is overstated," McCurry said. "Those considerations, as well as any political considerations of Gore's, are outweighed by our sense that it would be good to have one house of Congress passing stuff we want on [issues] like education."
Clearly, Clinton's instincts are to help Democrats in trouble. For instance, he has made several personal appearances -- including a trip to Chicago -- on behalf of Illinois' Carol Moseley-Braun, a senator facing a tough re-election campaign. Privately, though, White House officials concede that recapturing the Senate this year is unlikely.
Moreover, this method of supporting candidates, while preferred Clinton, is considered inefficient by Capitol Hill strategists; presidents have historically had difficulty transferring their popularity to others.
What he can do, according to Democrats in the White House and on the Hill, is the following:
On Capitol Hill, this is considered by far the most important. "He's already created a message grid that works for Democrats," said Matt Angle, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). "Now it's a question of resources, and the president's ability [to raise money] is far in excess of anyone else's."
Clinton was the headliner at two DCCC fund-raisers in February, one in San Francisco and the other in Philadelphia, that raised a combined $1 million for the congressional committee, twice what it could have expected without him. Two more are scheduled today in Los Angeles while Clinton is on the West Coast.
With the DCCC being out-raised by its Republican counterpart more than 2 to 1, it wants commitments for many more such events. But it has to compete for Clinton's time with the Democratic National Committee, which is deeply in debt because of the 1995 and 1996 television ad campaigns ordered up by the president for his re-election campaign.
DCCC officials have asked the White House to commit to doing 10 "unity events," in which the president would raise money from large donors with the proceedings going, in a three-way split, to the DNC, the DCCC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. They have received vague assurances, but no promises.
"It's all played out in money nowadays," said Democratic campaign consultant Jim Duffy. "How much money Clinton raises, that's the test of whether he really wants to help."
Create a climate hospitable to Democrats.
Much of this has been done, but it's not enough for the president to point out that there is a strong economy -- Republican incumbents are running on the economy, too. Clinton must take credit for the economy on behalf of his party. A week ago, he held a reception for the members of Congress -- they were all Democrats -- who voted for his 1993 budget, a bill credited by Wall Street for accelerating the economic recovery.
"The vote you cast was probably among the most difficult ever cast by members of the Congress of the United States in the history of our republic," Clinton said. "You had withering partisan criticism. I can only ask you to remember the people you helped, the families you strengthened, the opportunity you created."
Deputy White House press secretary Joe Lockhart vowed that this theme will be a staple of the campaign trail. "Not one Republican can say he or she voted right on that budget," he said.
Draw distinctions between the parties on domestic issues.
Clinton and the Democrats are proposing to spend billions of dollars on programs such as child care, education and environmental protection -- expenditures the Republicans have yet to approve.
Needling the GOP for its inaction must be done delicately, at least for now, lest Clinton be seen as more interested in partisan politics than getting things done.
The president has indicated that he's aware of this risk: Asked last week if criticizing Republicans was the best way to get bipartisan consensus, Clinton quickly replied that he'd not "bashed all the Republicans," singling out maverick Sen. John McCain of Arizona for praise.
Pub Date: 5/03/98