Clinton handed reprieve by voters

Click to follow
ON TUESDAY, it was up to America's voters to decide the fate of Bill Clinton, and they saved him. The independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, Washington political pundits and the House Judiciary Committee had all condemned him, but voters delivered the same verdict as in 1992, when they elected him to the White House, and in 1996, when they made him the first Democratic president since Roosevelt to be re-elected for a second term. They want him to stay in office.

In April, when Mr Clinton learnt during his Africa tour that the sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones had been dismissed, he was caught by a photographer dancing around in sheer delight, semi-naked, with a cigar in his mouth. There must have been something of that same jubilation in the White House last night as the results came in.

But there appeared to be an effort not to crow about the results. After all, had not everyone denied that the mid-term congressional elections were in any way a referendum on the President? But that, as Mr Clinton and his associates well knew, was not even wishful thinking; it was wrong.

The decision of the voters yesterday was always going to determine the future of Mr Clinton's presidency. The results make the prospect of Mr Clinton being forced from office by resignation or impeachment far less likely than it was even 24 hours ago. The Democratic representation in the House of Representatives, which is committed to opening impeachment hearings this month, has been increased by five.

This is not sufficient to ensure hearings are suspended; the Republicans still have a majority and therefore control of the Judiciary Committee. But the signal sent by voters can hardly be ignored.

In the Senate, which would have to conduct a trial of the President if the House so voted, there has been no change in the political balance. The Republicans could force an impeachment vote, but they lack the necessary two-thirds majority to force it through, and by virtue of the status quo election results, they lack also the moral authority to do so.

At what stage the impeachment process will be called off cannot be predicted. But Congress will be looking for some arrangement with the White House that would save face for both sides - and the integrity of the Constitution, even if precedents are set.

Voters insisted they were voting on "the issues" or on the personality of the candidates. Certain quirks of these elections, however, indicate that voters were well aware of their unusual responsibility. The turn- out - put nationally at 38 per cent, but higher in many states with close races - was unusually high for mid-term elections. It was forecast to be the lowest turn-out on record. Much Democrat campaigning in the last week concentrated on getting out voters, partly because fewer Democrats have voted in mid-term elections, partly because of fears that disgust and disappointment with the President would keep Democrats at home.

In the event, they did vote, among them black and Hispanic voters who may have brought the Democrats victory in California, the Carolinas and Alabama. If attendance at the Baltimore Baptist Church on Sunday was a harbinger, when blacks crowded in as an expression of support for the President, many turned out for one reason only: to keep him - "their president" - in power.

Something of the same feeling could be detected among white liberals, especially liberal women, who decided in the end that the President's merits so outweighed his flaws that he should be kept in office. The possibility that Mr Clinton's presidency could be seriously endangered by a Republican landslide may have convinced them not to abstain, but to come out and vote.

Mr Clinton once described himself as the luckiest president. But presidents makesome of their own luck and Mr Clinton made some of his in the way he handled this campaign. Eschewing stump campaigning, he carried on tirelessly with the business of the presidency, including sleep lost during the Middle East talks.

He did not banish the Monica Lewinsky scandal completely, keeping up allusions to his "adversity" and his determination to "heal" his family.

His conduct was judged appropriate to the circumstances. But if the elections had a hero, it was not Mr Clinton but his wife, Hillary, whose singleminded and dignified campaigning won back many - especially - female doubters.

All the peculiarities of the campaign pose one question. Did the Democrats do better because of the Lewinsky scandal than they would have done otherwise? If Mr Clinton's disgrace and possible impeachment fired the Democrats' campaign and inspired their voters to vote, the answer must be Yes. Ms Lewinsky may have brought the President to the point of ruin but she ended up saving the Democrats from electoral disaster too.

Leading article,

Review, page 3