The Magazine

PRESIDENT ALBATROSS

Jun 8, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 38 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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THE WEEK OF MAY 18 was not an especially good one for Bill Clinton. New China allegations had surfaced, and Republicans were quick to make hay. The House leadership scheduled a series of votes, each intended to rebuke Clinton for his China policy. Democrats had little choice but to go along. Many of them argued that China was a far graver matter than presidential lubricity.


Then, in the middle of the week, Republican leaders scheduled two more votes, this time on resolutions relating to Clinton's obstructionism. These latter votes were little noticed by the media, but they nonetheless revealed a disquiet in Democratic ranks. One of the resolutions called on the president to demand that his friends, appointees, and associates "come forward and testify fully and truthfully" before congressional committees (including that chaired by the controversial Dan Burton). An astounding 69 Democrats out of 206 supported this measure, with another 12 voting "present." Their votes -- inconceivable before the China quake hit -- stung a president whom almost every Democrat had long sought to protect.


The other resolution, however, was even more significant. Replete with references to Richard Nixon and Watergate, it urged Clinton to make available any and all documents pertaining to his claim of executive privilege -- a claim that the president has yet to acknowledge in public. The measure was nonbinding, but, even so, remarkable: It essentially accused Clinton of dealing in bad faith. And 36 Democrats supported it, with 6 voting "present." Republican whip Tom DeLay was exultant. "This represents the first crack in the Democratic stonewall strategy," he said. And although that crack is a relatively small one, it could lead to disintegration.


So, who are the Democrats responsible for the cracking? On the executive-privilege vote, they are a mixture. A few of them are retiring at the end of the present term, free of party constraints. A few others are genuine conservatives, often unfriendly to the administration. But most of the 36 are Clinton Democrats from tough districts who face close races against well-funded opponents -- and they are wary of a president who may prove an albatross around their necks.


Ted Strickland, for example, represents southeastern Ohio, a classic swing district. In 1992, he was elected with 51 percent of the vote. Two years later, he lost in the Republican tidal wave -- and again the vote was 51 percent to 49 percent. In 1996, he recaptured the seat -- once more with only 51 percent. And next fall, he faces Ohio's lieutenant governor, Nancy Hollister, a moderate, pro-choice Republican who is bound to run a strong campaign.


Strickland says that he voted against Clinton on executive privilege "because I believe in full disclosure. I believe in openness, and I think the public has a right to know." He says that he "consistently" tells his constituents that "wrongdoing should be identified and punished, and that no one is above the law -- not the president, and not Kenneth Starr." Strickland further contends, like so many of his fellow Democrats, that "the recent accusations" -- meaning those concerning China -- "are by far the most serious for the well-being of the country." Still, he adds, he would welcome Clinton to his district and is not attempting to distance himself from the president.


The GOP, for its part, is targeting Strickland's seat, and several others as well. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii -- a liberal mainstay yet one of the Democratic 36 -- is considered vulnerable, with one Republican poll showing him behind. Leonard Boswell of Iowa won by 49 percent to 48 percent last time, a margin of only a few thousand votes. Charlie Stenholm in Texas is fighting a second pitched battle with his 1996 challenger, Rudy Izzard. And Republicans are fairly licking their chops over Jim Maloney in Connecticut, who, as the GOP sees it, is all but toast.