Electorate throws Clinton a lifeline

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 November, 1998, 12:00am

As President Bill Clinton, his aides and an assorted group of VIP guests watched the election results, all that was on offer was the regular White House fare of pizza and Diet Coke.

But the popping of champagne corks cannot be too far off for a beleaguered President who may have just witnessed the American voter handing him a lifeline.

Not only did the public effectively tell the Republican Congress to ease off on its impeachment probe, it sent several Democrats back to Washington who had feared for their jobs.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his congressional colleagues now face an awful dilemma when they reconvene next week to launch an impeachment inquiry.

The polls sent out one resounding message from the voters: the economy is good, our worries are few and we do not want you to rock the boat - and that includes firing the President.

The Democrats' shock gains in the House and their surprising Senate and gubernatorial race victories, even in Republican strongholds in the South, tended to mask the fact that this was the Year of the Incumbent.

More than 90 per cent of incumbents kept their seats - another sign Americans are happy with the status quo.

Senior House Republican David Dreier said of the impeachment probe: 'The message has come through loud and clear. No Republicans are going to want to drag this out.' It is now possible that the House will balk at sending an impeachment recommendation to the Senate for a vote and may accede to White House calls for a compromise censure motion to bring the Monica Lewinsky matter to an end.

Mr Gingrich is certain to face the music from his conservative colleagues over what went wrong - and how they managed to misjudge so profoundly the mood of the country. A last-minute advertising blitz blasting the President's sexual misconduct which was given the green light by the Speaker, appears to have backfired badly.

How long ago August 17 now seems, when Mr Clinton's disastrous televised admission of the Lewinsky affair had Democrats fearing they would be decimated in the elections. And how far we are from 1994, the last mid-term polls, when Republicans swept to power in both houses on a wave of anti-Clinton sentiment.

Democrats won many of the key races by investing heavily in getting out the black and Hispanic vote.

But Republicans - with the notable exception of the victorious Bush brothers - continued to alienate minority voters. Mr Clinton led the Democrats in urging them to turn out in support. Once again, women voted heavily Democrat.

For all these constituencies, key issues of concern include education, health-care reform and the future of the social security system - and voters showed they trust the Democrats to tackle them.

However, the Republican governors who retained their jobs also showed how to win public support: follow moderate conservative policies and do a good job on the grassroots issues, notably education.

The strong Democratic showing in these elections will boost the presidential aspirations of Vice-President Al Gore.

But Republicans also think they may have found the man to lead them to victory in 2000: George Bush, who won a landslide re-election as Texas governor by appealing to a broad cross-section of voters.