Other issues besides impeachment could affect Election '98
Health care reform, the economy and taxes could tip the scales in some districts
By Kathleen Hayden/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (September 16) -- Undeniably, the political landscape of Election '98 was forever altered the minute Independent Counsel Ken Starr dropped his 445-page referral in the sex-and-perjury investigation of President Bill Clinton on Capitol Hill last week.
Since then, impeachment talk has eclipsed both the upcoming midterm elections and knocked many of the election issues off the national radar.
But while analysts scramble to determine how significant the Monica effect will prove to be, there is evidence from public opinion surveys that many Americans want the president and Congress to return to the business of running the country.
For those people, their vote could still be determined by more personal issues like their pocketbooks and ability to take their kids to a good doctor.
Republicans won't want to alienate those voters by focusing too closely on the Lewinsky matter, so they will instead spotlight the accomplishments of the past four years of Republican congressional leadership.
And Democrats must find the issues that will resonate with voters enough to counteract the expected decrease in voter turnout among the discouraged party faithful. They will pounce on managed care reform as part of a broader effort to project their party as the one best able to defend average Americans -- and portray GOP as pro-HMO, pro-tobacco and in the pocket of big business.
Look for '98 hopefuls to continue the focus back home on mainstays of election platforms like education and crime.
And here's a roundup of some specific issues that could ultimately tip the scales in November:
HMO reform Since the beginning of the year, when the president first announced his "Patients' Bill of Rights," Democrats have been pressing the issue of reforming health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and other managed-care companies. The issue quickly struck a chord with voters and HMO-bashing became contagious as Republicans offered up their own proposals. Before Congress went on its summer break, it seemed like a consensus for federal action had emerged.
And the public agreed: According to an August Pew Center poll, Americans ranked HMO regulation as very important to them personally and for the country and backed federal involvement: 53 percent of Americans support the creation of national standards for patients in HMOs and managed-care plans. Only 35 percent say such regulation would "get the government too involved in health care."
But since Congress' return, HMO reform has been one of the most notable victims of the Lewinsky matter, as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott warned that there would not be enough time this fall to deal with competing proposals.
Democrats insist it is still a priority for them and plan to make it an issue in the fall elections. The strategy may be smart, because women's health concerns have been a significant focus of Democratic HMO reform efforts and women are again expected to play the role of swing voters.
The economy Before the Lewinsky mess, the 1998 election was predicted to be in large part a status quo event, with incumbents favored to retain their seats. Why? It's the economy, stupid. The remarkable health of the U.S. economy has kept Americans happy about the state of the nation over the past couple of years and voters would therefore not be expected to make too many changes in Washington.
But recent stock market gyrations, coupled with the Russian economic crisis and instability in Washington, have made that assumption less certain. So far polls have shown Americans still confident about the state of the economy, which is good news for politicians who are claiming the credit.
But a CNN poll earlier this month shows that the fluctuations have made Americans significantly less optimistic about the country's economic future, with only 45 percent saying that the economy is getting better, down from 69 percent who felt that way in March. If the stock market nose-dives over the next month, the public anxiety level could increase at the expense of incumbents.
Tax cut vs. Social Security While estimates vary, an approximate $1.6 trillion budget surplus has been projected over the next 10 years. What should the government do with the windfall? House Republicans are betting their push to dip into the funds to pay for a large election-year tax cut will be a success at the polls. Democrats take an opposite tack, and are supporting President Bill Clinton's plan to hold off on spending the money until lawmakers figure out how to shore up Social Security. They urge their GOP colleagues to instead maintain the course of targeted tax cuts, set out in the balanced budget agreement.
The dueling proposals set up a battle between two of the most politically sensitive issues. Cutting taxes has long been a popular staple of Republican campaigns, while Democrats have had equal success in bludgeoning opponents over Social Security. The question in November will be which issue will prove stronger.
There's also a consensus that the complicated U.S. tax code needs to be overhauled. The House managed, barely, to pass a bill scrapping the current tax code and replacing it with a simpler, yet unspecified, one. Many members have strong views on what type of tax should be used instead, including a flat tax or a national sales tax.
One specific tax issue that should surface during the fall campaigns is the so-called "marriage tax." Senate Republicans held a largely symbolic vote in July on the issue of ending the so-called "marriage penalty" in the income tax system. As soon as it passed on a mostly party-line vote of 51-48 the measure was withdrawn and Democrats accused their GOP counterparts of forcing them to cast a vote that could be used against them in the midterm elections.
Look for Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike to highlight the steps they took throughout the year to rein in the IRS, while touting their respective reform plans. With such a sensitive issue like taxation, these proposals could play a role in some districts.
Campaign finance reform Following the 1996 election, calls for fund-raising reform grew as charges of campaign finance law violations were alleged against both parties, though Democratic activities have become the focus.
Last month the House passed a measure that would end unlimited "soft money" donations and place strict limits on so-called issue advocacy ads. The move allows members to bring home a positive voting record on legislation supported by the majority of Americans.
Senators cannot make the same claim. In February, a Senate filibuster killed a campaign overhaul bill nearly identical to the House version but Senate Republican leaders have refused so far to allow the legislation to be reconsidered. Democrats are expected to hammer on that point back home.
Tobacco A huge political battle erupted last spring over the regulation of tobacco, ending in June when the most comprehensive and bipartisan bill was killed in the Senate. Democrats decried the bill's demise, saying it was the best hope to reverse the growing trend of teen smoking. Taking their cue from the tobacco lobby's $40 million ad campaign (which continues), Republicans painted the effort as a "big government" tax-and-spend bill.
So who, if anyone, will be blamed for the bill's failure? The legislation had seemed to be popular with Americans, and Democrats predicted that voters would register their displeasure with the GOP at the polls. But a CNN poll a week after the tobacco bill's death indicated that would not be the case as 78 percent said the inaction would not affect how they voted in the congressional election.
Immigration More than 1 million legal immigrants enter the United States each year, joined by an untold number of illegal immigrants. This tide has become a hot-button issue in recent years, most notably in California, where voters have passed initiatives denying illegal immigrants access to public services like food stamps and welfare aid, and curtailing bilingual education. Other measures that could come into play in some states and nationally are immigration caps and quotas, increased border patrols and reorganizing the INS.
Late-term abortion Twice Congress has passed the legislation. Twice Clinton has vetoed it.
Setting the stage for an election-year showdown, the House next voted 296-132 in July to override the president's latest veto of a ban on a certain type of late-term abortion. The override easily cleared the House, allowing a majority of members to return to their districts with a voting record that shows they opposed a procedure sometimes referred to as "murder" and "infanticide." Democratic hold-outs will argue that any legislation needs to keep the procedure legal in cases where the health of the mother, not just her life, is threatened.
There is some indication though that Republicans may not focus too strongly on moral issues though. A Republican Leadership Council poll in July showed that the House GOP risks losing its majority if it focuses on controversial topics like abortion or homosexuality, instead of things like the economy, education or crime.
But like all the issues playing a role in the upcoming election, the Lewinsky matter may have reversed that view as well.
When questioned about the impact the president's troubles will have on their party's chances in November, the Democratic party likes to point out that each race will come down to a decision between two individual candidates.
That is true. And the races will hinge on the positions those individuals take on issues important to the constituents in their districts, be it tobacco in Kentucky, immigration in New Mexico -- or the impeachment of Clinton in Anywhere, U.S.A.