A year ago President Clinton could barely have assembled from the Democratic Party a group of pallbearers for his own political funeral.
Against that backdrop, what happened Wednesday was an extraordinary scene. There, gathered in the ornately paneled caucus room of the House Ways and Means Committee, were the remaining Democratic members of the House--many of whose members had bitterly blamed Clinton in 1994 for the loss of their congressional majority and had grumbled since about his frequent departures from party orthodoxies.
But as Clinton walked into their meeting room, the members rose to their feet and greeted him not with anger but with cheers.
“Four more years!”
Exactly a year ago, veteran Democratic Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin openly mocked Clinton for his latest budgetary back-flip, saying: “Some of us learned some time ago that if you don’t like the president’s position on a particular issue, you simply need to wait a few weeks.”
That was then. Now the Democrats are more united than they have been in years and more happy than they’ve ever been with Clinton. Even Obey praises the president for his constancy and his spirited defense of Democratic principles.
But is this apparent reconciliation between party and president permanent or merely a temporary alliance against a common enemy as Election Day approaches?
Clinton’s allies, confident almost to the point of cockiness, say that the president has effectively routed House Speaker Newt Gingrich and rallied the perpetually feuding elements of the Democratic Party behind him with a combination of sound policies and shrewd politics.
The defeat of 1994 and Clinton’s subsequent recovery in public opinion polls have given Democrats new reasons to respect the president and look to him for help in the fall campaign, they say.
“The polls certainly help” explain the newfound Democratic affection for Clinton, said White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta. “We learned a huge lesson from the election of 1994. And the battles of last year on the budget and the [government] shutdowns built a real bond between the president and the Democrats.”
Clinton is enjoying broad popularity not only among elected Democratic officials, but also among the rank and file, who are more firmly supportive than they have been of any recent Democratic president or nominee.
Recent surveys show that Clinton enjoys the backing of nearly 90% of self-described Democratic voters, a stunning number in an often fractured party. Ronald Reagan won 25% of Democratic votes in 1980 and 1984; George Bush won 17% in 1988; and Bush and Perot took 23% between them in 1992.
While Democrats have made their peace, for now, with the president, it is an uneasy truce that masks continuing deep divisions over policy. But few policy initiatives are likely to go anywhere in an election year, so those divisions are being subsumed in an electoral alliance.
Democratic moderates are pleased that Clinton is emphasizing cultural issues, crime and welfare reform, while liberals are more accepting of the often-frustrating president because “they have seen the alternative, which is terrible,” Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a centrist Democrat from Connecticut, said in an interview.
Moreover, Lieberman noted of his longtime friend Clinton: “He’s just gotten better at the job.”
“He tends to stumble, but he not only gets up, he figures out why he stumbled and he doesn’t do it again,” said Lieberman.
On the other hand, those intraparty splits will become apparent once again as the presidential race tightens, or afterward, even if Clinton wins a second term, Lieberman predicted.
“Will it be perpetual bliss? No, because we’re coming at it from different points of view--and because we’re depending on the political skills of one person, the president,” Lieberman said.
Indeed, Democratic moderates--remembering how Clinton, in their eyes, abandoned his centrist principles by proposing an intrusive federal health care program and squandered his honeymoon with a losing battle on gays in the military--still worry about his constancy. Liberals, for their part, are privately angry at what they see as Clinton’s repeated capitulations to the Republicans on budget policy and his inability to protect important Democratic constituencies.
Many liberals worry about Clinton’s election year moves to the right to preempt Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole on social issues. Gay groups, for example, are angry at Clinton for his support of a ban on same-sex marriages; civil libertarians are still fuming over his backing of a limit on appeals by condemned prisoners; and many unionists haven’t gotten over his promotion of free-trade agreements.
Clinton’s ability to keep both wings of the party happy will last “as long as his poll numbers hold up,” said independent political analyst Charles Cook. “For a presidential candidate up 15-20 points in the polls, of course you’d expect congressional candidates to be hanging all over him. They’re getting along remarkably well, but under the circumstances, they ought to be. But there’s a certain amount of prudence out there too. They’ve seen him go up and they’ve seen him go down.”
For now, however, all parts of the party have swallowed their doubts and are supporting the president with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
The resulting differences between two years ago and today are stark. In 1994, large parts of the country were virtual “no-fly” zones for the president; congressional candidates in the South, the Plains and the Mountain West as much as told Clinton to stay away for fear of hurting their electoral chances.
GOP Chairman Haley Barbour said at the time that Democrats were running from Clinton like “scalded dogs.” One Democratic candidate in Tennessee said he’d rather be caught kissing his Republican opponent on the courthouse steps than share a podium with Clinton.
In Tennessee, Democratic Party State Chairman Will T. Cheek admitted that Clinton was poison in his state two years ago, when Republicans captured two U.S. Senate seats and the governorship from Democrats. But now, he said, “the president is doing right well” in Tennessee, with approval ratings around 50%, and Clinton is leading Dole in head-to-head polls.
“A guy told me recently that he’s concluded that it was better to elect a Democrat who was not exactly his cup of tea than a Republican he would spit out of his mouth,” said Democratic Party co-chairman Don Fowler of South Carolina. “That general attitude pertains across the board.”
Or as Cheek put it: “The 1994 election just woke people up to our impending doom if we didn’t get our act together. . . . Since then there’s been a remarkable willingness to hold hands and jump in the water together.”
Times staff writer Janet Hook also contributed to this story.