||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Clinton's Polarizing Monica Speech
Democrats worry the scandal will depress fall turnout
By Stuart Rothenberg
The president's admission on Monday in a speech that he had an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky isn't the end of anything. Far from it.
For most of the past seven months, the conventional wisdom was that this was a "he said, she said" case, with Independent Counsel Ken Starr probably unable to prove that Clinton and Lewinsky had a sexual relationship and that the president lied to the American people when he denied it unequivocally and repeatedly.
Well, all that speculation was mistaken, and the great danger for both the president and his party is that Starr will now be able to make a strong case -- even if it isn't one that persuades the staunchest, more irrational Clinton defenders that we see on TV -- that the president participated in efforts to obstruct justice.
The president's Monday night speech, not nearly as contrite as expected and aimed as much at placing blame on the independent counsel as apologizing to the American people, will only aggravate the scandal and polarize opinion.
In one area, the facts are pretty clear. The president lied to the nation for seven months about whether he had sexual encounters with a White House intern, and he stood by while Mrs. Clinton and his closest friends and allies made fools of themselves. But it's far from certain that the president's admission alone changes the outlook for the congressional elections.
Clearly, Democratic campaign strategists are very worried about turnout. A drop in the Democratic vote alone could tilt tossup races such as open seats in Oregon 1, Pennsylvania 15 and Wisconsin 1 toward the GOP.
Maybe at greatest risk for the Democrats are southern seats and normally Republican districts (even moderate-to-liberal GOP districts), since conservative and Republican voters may be more likely to be angry at the president and rally behind GOP House candidates. Open seats in Mississippi 4, Idaho 2 and Kentucky 4 would seem to fit into that category, and vulnerable Republican incumbents in similar districts -- Vince Snowbarger (KS 3), John Fox (PA 13), and Rick White (WA 1) -- could also benefit from turnout that is affected by the scandal.
The impact of the president's admission on White and another GOP incumbent, Jim Nussle (IA 2), is fascinating. Both Republican congressmen and Nussle have recently had very public and very nasty divorces filled with whispering and rumors, and it will be interesting to see how they address the president's situation.
Republican operatives believe that increased talk of impeachment has the potential to increase Democratic turnout and to paint the GOP as partisan and nasty. While the public's personal opinion of the president dropped precipitously in quick CNN polling, Clinton's job ratings remain good. That makes GOP operatives nervous about taking him on in an impeachment process. Instead, they argue, their candidates get the greatest advantage by letting the scandal simmer throughout the fall.
My own view is quite similar. A full-scale rush to impeachment in the House by conservative Republicans, barring strong evidence of obstruction of justice and some softening of public opinion of the president, could certainly help the Democrats in the fall.
The president's address to the nation, which sounded more political than apologetic, suggests that the White House and its allies will continue to attack Starr. That could help increase intensity among Democrats, but it also carries a significant risk if the independent counsel has persuasive evidence that the president played a major role in attempting to mislead investigators.
For the foreseeable future, I'd expect candidates from both parties to tip-toe around the scandal. Nobody is sure exactly what new information will come out, so Republican and Democratic hopefuls will concentrate on doing the things that win elections regardless of national developments - raising money, meeting voters, putting together their early TV and direct mail advertising, and finalizing their voter identification and get-out-the-vote campaigns.
But if you're a Republican consultant, the prospect of being able to run commercials about integrity and character, as well as about the need to keep a Republican House majority in order to keep an eye on Bill Clinton, has to be comforting.