Democrats' Negative Talk Could Backfire

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

When leading Democratic fund-raisers gathered here Thursday to discuss the 1998 campaign, the most pointed comments were directed not at President Clinton but at congressional Democrats who have publicly lamented that Clinton's problems may devastate the party in the fall election.

"I don't like to hear this defeatist talk," one man declared to loud applause at a meeting of the Democratic Business Council, a leading party fund-raising group. "We're going to talk ourselves into a defeat."

Those defiant words may slight the actual degree of danger facing Democrats in an election conducted in the shadow of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on Clinton, which is expected to be made public today. But the comments accurately suggest the growing fear among party activists that the anxiety--even panic--among Democrats on Capitol Hill will compound the risk by demoralizing the party's base or driving down Clinton's public support.

"When Democrats make those contentions," complains Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Visalia), the co-chairman of the centrist New Democratic Coalition, "it has an adverse impact on the ability of Democratic candidates to raise funds and put together campaigns."

In an era when politicians are accused of following the polls, congressional Democrats are racing ahead of public opinion, which has been surprisingly immune to the frenzy in Washington over the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

Three new surveys released Thursday showed Clinton's job approval ratings remain solid at between 57% and 60%, and a strong majority of Americans continue to believe he should serve out his term.

But such poll findings have failed to abate the fear of many Democrats in Congress that the information Starr has amassed may inspire a tidal wave that sweeps them from office. "It's not a disaster so far," said one senior House Democratic aide, "but that doesn't mean it won't become one."

Trying to shore up their spirits, House Democrats met with each other and Senate Democrats met with the president. But one leading Democratic strategist said the mood was approaching "mass hysteria."

Clinton's difficulties have put Democratic officeholders in the position they like least--uncertainty--at the time they can least abide it--just before an election.

Yet, on the eve of the report's release, several new polls continue to show remarkable stability in the public's assessment of Clinton, the scandal and the fall election. "The revolt against Clinton is completely a top-down event," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "There's nothing bottom-up about it."

One poll released by the Pew Research Center found that 61% of those surveyed approve of Clinton's performance in office, 76% believe he should finish out his term and 57% said they would have a less favorable opinion of Congress if it commences impeachment proceedings. On the other hand, the survey--which interviewed an unusually large sample of 2,266 adults from Aug. 27 through Sept. 8--found continued erosion in personal assessments of Clinton, with 64% of Americans saying they do not like him personally, up from 53% in February.

On the issue of most immediate interest to members of Congress, the survey found the two parties in a statistical tie when likely voters were asked how they intend to vote for Congress this fall: 48% picked the GOP, 45% picked the Democrats. In the survey, 63% said Clinton would not be a factor in their congressional vote, while the remainder split about evenly between those who said they would cast their vote to make a statement for or against the president.

Similarly, a CBS News survey released Thursday found that while assessments of Clinton's honesty were bleak, just 26% of those polled agree that it would be better for the country if he resigns. An ABC poll, meanwhile, found Clinton's approval rating dipping slightly since late July but remaining at 57%.

At the Democratic Business Council meeting, Mark Penn, the White House pollster, released a survey that showed stability in Clinton's approval rating and a statistical tie between the parties when voters were asked their preferences in this fall's elections. "The truth is, this is a very static electorate," Penn insisted.

Don't try telling that to the congressional Democrats. After generally defending Clinton for months, they have tumbled over each other in recent days to denounce his conduct, openly raise the prospect of impeachment and lament the party's prospects in November.

On Thursday, for instance, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) escalated her earlier criticism of Clinton by declaring, "The president, by his actions, has created a domestic crisis."

Democratic officials and operatives posit several reasons for the rush away from the president. One is genuine outrage at his conduct: While the public may believe most politicians engage in such activity, notes one Democratic pollster, "politicians really don't believe Clinton's behavior is anywhere close to the norm. Ironically, they are judging him by a less cynical standard" than voters.

Disappointment over Clinton's botched confessional speech on Aug. 17 is also contributing to the anxiety. But many Democrats believe the turning point in the congressional attitude came not with the speech but with the first leaked indications soon thereafter that Starr's report might contain detailed descriptions of his sexual activities with Lewinsky.

"In marginal districts, particularly culturally conservative districts in the Northwest and the South, members are nervous. . . . [that] people may not find it easy to deal with some of the sexual aspects of this," said one member of the House Democratic leadership.

Despite the resilience of Clinton's poll numbers, Democrats also worry that the scandal will produce a potentially devastating turnout advantage for the GOP--a possibility that several polls have already signaled. And congressional Democrats appear intuitively aware of a dynamic that analyses such as Penn's downplay: It may not take mass defections from Clinton to sink the party this fall but only a shift at the margin that tilts most close races toward the GOP. "It is only going to take a modest change [in views toward Clinton] to make a big political impact," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center.

Times staff writer Geraldine Baum contributed to this story.

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