Candidates Talk Issues, Personalities, But Not Impeachment
LEGI-SLATE News Service
Tuesday, Oct. 27, 1998
It is being described as the congressional election season of "the Boxer and the kick-boxer," featuring wild swings but no real causes to draw voters to the ballot boxes next Tuesday.
From coast to coast from the bitter re-election contest of California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, to the eye-gouging, donnybrook in New York, where Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato called Democratic challenger, Rep. Charles Schumer, a "putzhead" candidates are taking jabs at each other over tax cuts, education, selling out to special interests, ignoring local concerns, or just plain not showing up for work.
The issues vary, from the weighty campaign finance reform debate between Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and his GOP opponent, Rep. Mark Neuman, to personal attacks. In Pittsburgh, a brawl almost ensued after video camera-toting Republican campaign volunteers confronted Rep. Ron Klink, a Democrat, with personal questions; Rep. Lorretta Sanchez, D-Calif., found herself labeled a "baby killer" on a picture of Mexico's Catholic patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe, that was distributed in her district.
There is no "national" issue in this campaign, even in a year when Congress struggled over party-defining issues such as Social Security and health care reform; when the international financial markets went into a tailspin; and when disclosure of President Clinton's personal relationship with Monica Lewinsky prompted a historic House vote to start an impeachment inquiry.
Indeed, most candidates, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., have decided not to broach the subject of Clinton's legal and political troubles stemming from his efforts to hide his liaison with Lewinsky.
Instead, Republicans are leaving that in the hands of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which began on Tuesday a last- minute, $10 million "air" war in 74 television markets, questioning Clinton's moral leadership and his affair with Lewinsky, according to The Associated Press.
The stepped-up campaign against Clinton comes at some risk because public opinion polls show voters are fed up with the scandal talk and Republicans' handling of the impeachment inquiry. Some GOP strategists have sensed the danger of raising the issue and drawing to the polls Democrats and Independents who believe the president has been treated unfairly.
But with Republicans not expected to make significant improvement in their current 11-seat hold in the House and 5-seat advantage in the Senate, Republican strategists decided the Clinton-Lewinsky needed to be addressed and would help contrast the GOP with Clinton, The Associated Press reported, citing unnamed sources.
Up until now, the White House peccadilloes have not been seen as having a major impact or becoming a deciding factor in this ho-hum, low-turnout election, according to election analysts.
It has been eclipsed in the final days of the campaign by local controversies and personalities, and at this point, is likely to motivate only the most rabid Republican and Democratic voters were likely to cast ballots in a mid-term election anyway, political watchers agree. If there is any impact on turnout, it will be the Democrats who suffer because their backers and Independents will feel the impeachment malaise and stay home, they add.
"There was certainly initially a feeling of a potential Republican surge. There was then a sense of a Democratic backlash. And now it seems to have settled down and not be much of a factor at all, although this is an area where we probably ought to be attentive to," said Thomas E. Mann, the governmental studies director at the Brookings Institution.
The real impact of the issue will come the morning after the election, as Democrats and Republicans dissect vote tallies in key congressional races in search of a "mandate" regarding the looming impeachment inquiry, Mann said during a news briefing Tuesday.
"The scandal and the impeachment process will have relatively little impact on the election, but the election is likely to have a major impact on the impeachment process," Mann said.
Political pragmatism has caused Democratic candidate Jay Inslee, who is running against Rep. Rick White, R-Wash. to change his television advertising campaign away from impeachment and back to the incumbent's environmental record. And in the closing days of the campaign, Inslee is running a biographical profile ad.
And with an eye on local issues important to voters near the Puget Sound, Inslee will once again get behind the wheel of his family's green Chrysler Caravan, bearing the sign, "Call Jay Inslee/Tell him your traffic nightmare."
Some Democratic strategists continue to argue that voter anger against Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's relentless pursuit of Clinton can be turned into a motivating force on Election Day.
"If you want to change this country around, if you want to take it back from the Newt Gingriches and Ken Starrs, if you want to set something out and do something differently, then go out and vote_" said James Carville, a Clinton ally, during a recent television interview.
And a few Democratic candidates employed the anti-impeachment/get-back- to-business strategy, including Inslee; Christine Kehoe, who is running against Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif.; and Ralph Neas, the challenger to Rep. Connie Morrella, R-Md.
New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt used a clip from Republican Rep. Michael Pappas' House floor rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle Kenneth Starr" in a television ad to question why Pappas was not focusing on legislative issues of national importance.
But historic precedent, which holds that the President's party on Capitol Hill fares badly in elections near the end of a lame duck's tenure in the White House, bodes a bad year for congressional Democratic candidates. So an anti-impeachment pitch will not carry the Democrats very far, said David A. Keene, who chairs the American Conservative Union. "Voting because you don't like Ken Starr, it's not going to happen. Even if they win their argument, they are still only at the 50-yard line," Keene said.
The Clinton scandal did not stay at the forefront of election issues because both sides are "embarrassed" by it, added Keene, a long-time conservative leader. Republicans are being criticized for their railroading the impeachment inquiry resolution through the House without bipartisan support, and Democrats were fearful, for a while, of being stained by the controversy's splatter, he explained.
Republicans, more than Democrats, have avoided the impeachment issue, except in North Carolina, where the state's voters are harsher than the rest of the country in their judgment of Clinton's behavior.
There, the struggling Republican incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth has tried to link Democratic challenger John Edwards, a trial lawyer, to Clinton's style and politics. Faircloth described both as "two tobacco- taxing liberals who have a habit of stretching the truth."
Mann, of the Brookings Institution, noted that Clinton's job approval ratings, which has stayed well above 60 percent throughout his personal scandal, has been a major factor in the candidates' reluctance to inject the issue into local campaigns.
That factor should also be remembered in the post-election analyses of the voters' "message" regarding impeachment, he added.
"Most people say Bill Clinton is a lame duck anyway; after this impeachment process he is lamer than lame, he will be unable to get anything done," Mann said. "The problem with that analysis is that it assumes the president got things done in the past by virtue of his moral authority or political strength. Of course, that's never been his basis for success."
So, if Republicans have only a "modest" pick up of House and Senate seats Mann forecast that the GOP could end up with only one additional seat in the Senate the impeachment proceedings could move quickly and wrap up before the end of the year.
As a result, Mann added, the president will maintain his ability to be a "player" on issues such as major tax cuts, Social Security, and the budget surplus that will be key legislative issues in the next Congress, even if voters are not yet focusing on them in this election year.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company