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  •   Democrats See Defeats as Election Issue

    Campaign '98
    By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, October 17, 1998; Page A10

    ST. LOUIS, Oct. 16 — Just one day after celebrating last-minute Democratic victories in congressional spending battles this week, President Clinton and other party leaders abruptly shifted focus today to highlight the many defeats they suffered over the past year in the hope that voters will punish Republicans for snubbing the agenda that Clinton laid out in his State of the Union address nine months ago.

    A day in which the Democratic Party's sometimes discordant voices were remarkably in unison began this morning at the White House. Clinton, who managed to prevail on several spending priorities in an 11th-hour showdown with the GOP this week, stood with dozens of Democratic lawmakers to acknowledge the larger reality: 1998 has been a dismal year for his domestic agenda.

    Anti-smoking legislation, reform of health maintenance organizations, an overhaul of campaign finance laws, new subsidies to help the middle class with child care, and an increase in the minimum wage – all these Clinton-backed proposals went down in flames at various points during the year. The question for the Nov. 3 midterm elections is whether Democrats can capitalize on these popular issues or whether efforts to craft them into a winning policy message will be overshadowed by the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

    "Eight days of progress cannot totally erase eight months of partisanship," Clinton said, adding, "The Republican majority is now leaving town to campaign, but they're also leaving a lot of America's business unfinished."

    Later, Vice President Gore and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) brought the same message here to Gephardt's home district. The two presumptive rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, who clashed in sharply personal terms in their previous presidential campaigns in 1988, spent the day assuring everyone that they get along fine.

    "We've been friends for 22 years," said Gore. "We are fighting for the same things."

    Later the two men adjourned to a union hall for a spirited, partisan pep rally. Quoting a famous line from a hero of the Show-Me State, President Harry S. Truman, Gephardt said this year on Capitol Hill revealed "truly a Do-Nothing Congress."

    "If you want a Congress that is good at investigations, this is the Congress for you," said Gephardt, winning cheers from the unionists. And there was a chorus of boos as Gephardt listed what he called one of the GOP's few accomplishments: Renaming Washington National Airport for Ronald Reagan.

    After several years in which Clinton and congressional Democrats were often tugging in different directions on issues such as budget and trade, both sides determined long ago that they would craft a unified agenda for 1998. Beginning as far back as Labor Day 1997, senior White House aides such as Deputy Chief of Staff John Podesta and communications director Ann Lewis have been meeting every Friday with party leadership aides on Capitol Hill to fashion a coordinated approach to issues and strategy.

    The effort worked as far as it went. Early this year, Clinton laid out a poll-tested agenda designed to rally Democrats and put the Republican majority on the defensive. The two largest items were a comprehensive bill to sharply curb youth smoking and boost funding for public health with steep increases in cigarette taxes, and a bill to expand protections for patients of health maintenance organizations. The theory was that the bills would prove so popular that Republicans would have no choice but to pass them. If they didn't pass, Democrats would have potent campaign issues against Republicans.

    But the theory ran headlong into a reality no one was predicting at the New Year. With the Lewinsky scandal dominating media and public attention all year, Republicans were able to defeat the tobacco and patients' rights bills with relative impunity. Democratic candidates and political consultants have complained that Clinton's personal problems have prevented them from building a sustained a message to take against Republicans.

    Today represented an effort to change that and to blame the GOP for what may amount to the most inert year in national domestic policy since the early 1990s. Democratic leadership aides say that strong polling numbers for the patients' rights bill guarantee that this will be a common refrain in congressional races for the next 2 weeks.

    "For all that this Congress has achieved this year, we might as well have adjourned a year ago," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) at the White House.

    Clinton also took the message on the road today, flying to Chicago for a fund-raiser for Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.)

    In response, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said that the GOP considers stopping many of Clinton's initiatives a worthy achievement in its own right, since they would have raised cigarette taxes and other fees and expanded government.

    "Americans can be proud the Republicans stopped Clinton from raising $135 billion, spending $150 billion of hard-earned taxpayer money in creating new bureaucracies," said Gingrich spokeswoman Christina Martin.

    Despite a history of political rivalry, aides say Gore and Gephardt have always gotten along decently at the personal level. This year they have been getting together for private meals every couple of months.

    At the Union Hall, Gore echoed Gephardt in saying Republicans are obsessed with pursuing scandal, though he did not mention the Lewinsky controversy directly. "We say: legislate. They say: investigate," Gore said, his voice rising to a shout. "We say environmental protection. They say: deposition. We say: protect our children. They say: inquisition. We say: educate. They say: interrogate. We say: health care. They say: we don't care."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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