Democrats flee the Clinton curse: Next month's US mid-term elections are likely to produce dramatic swings, says Rupert Cornwell

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The Independent Online
IT LAST happened when Dwight Eisenhower was elected, when Josef Stalin was in the Kremlin, before Queen Elizabeth was crowned. In November 1952, the Republican party rode the huge popularity of Eisenhower to seize control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

This disruption of the laws of political gravity lasted just two years; by 1954 the Democrats were back and - with the exception of a brief loss of the Senate in Ronald Reagan's heyday - were never to be dislodged. Until, just possibly, next month.

These US mid-term elections have the whiff of history in the making. Simply put, the Democrats are terrified. A deeply mistrusted President of their own party occupies the White House. An old regime is buckling. Congressional titans such as Senator Edward Kennedy and Tom Foley, the House Speaker, are fighting to avoid defeat. If such is their fate, both would be victims of a wave of anti-incumbency rolling across the land which that has turned Washington into the dirtiest 10-letter word in the land.

Their going would signify almost certainly the Democrats' loss of the Senate, conceivably of the House as well, and, in all probability, the vanishing of Bill Clinton's hopes of a second term.

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the President. These are bilious times in American politics: the only thing nastier than the mood of the electorate of late has been the atmosphere on Capitol Hill, where what the Washington Post called 'the worst Congress in 50 years' finally bowed out this month amid filibusters, partisan name-calling and a small mountain of wrecked legislation.

True, Clinton brought some of the trouble upon himself by coming to Washington as an outsider capable of overcoming gridlock and 'Making Government Work' - only to cosy up to the old Democratic establishment and preside over a system which, as the last few weeks of gridlock have demonstrated, is just not working. He and his White House have had more than their share of scandals. Most strangely of all, a reputed master of consensus and coalition-building, elected with only 43 per cent of the vote, so often has failed to offer the hand of compromise to Republicans (most obviously over health care) until too late.

But Clinton cannot be blamed for the deeper problems of the national psyche: a perverse grumpiness and anxiety that refuses to believe in an economic recovery growing stronger by the month, the cynicism fuelled by the rantings of right-wing talk show hosts and Ross Perot, the sense of purposelessness after the Cold War, or the split between left and right in his own party which long predates his arrival in Washington.

The Democrats' dilemma, however, is simple. 'Throw the bums out' sums up the average American's view of his Congress. This time, unfortunately, a majority of the bums are Democrats. A popular president might have helped, but not one bumping along at 40 per cent or less in the polls. That may be twice the rating accorded to a reviled Congress, but is the lowest for a president at this stage of his term since Harry Truman.

Four decades ago, Eisenhower had coat-tails: Clinton is a case of what is inelegantly called 'reverse coat-tails'. In the conservative South, especially, Democratic candidates shrink from his name. Republicans assail the 'Clinton Congress' and show computer-aided advertisements on television of their opponents metamorphosing into Bill Clinton. Across the country, Democrats have concluded that Survival '94 means stressing local themes, local connections, that only by avoiding the W-word can Armageddon be avoided.

In fact, their prospects may not be quite so bleak. For one thing, free from the distraction of health care, Clinton will begin to sell his successes - the economy, above all, but also the North American Free Trade Agreement, measures to help the poor, and now a clutch of foreign policy successes in Haiti, Iraq, and perhaps North Korea.

FOR ANOTHER, the Republicans may have overplayed their hand. When the orders went out to pull the plug on any piece of legislation that might help the cause of Clinton and the Democrats, the watchword was 'remove the fingerprints'. Soon, though, caution was thrown to the wind.

'I make no apology for killing this turkey of a Bill,' boasted one Republican Senator after despatching campaign finance reform legislation that might have lifted Congress's prestige. Such obstructionism is a dangerous game, even when supported by those viscerally anti-Clinton, 20th-century tribunes who rule the talk shows.

But the Republicans' biggest error may prove to have been the now notorious 'Contract with America', that choreographed-for-television spectacular proclaimed from the steps of the Capitol on 27 September. The 'contract' consisted of a pledge of 10 measures that a Republican Congress would send to the president's desk: tax cuts, a stronger military, a host of other goodies, balanced by an unspecified rollback of government to permit a balanced budget. In other words, warmed-over Reaganism.

The Democrats were exultant. Reaganomics hangs around Republican necks - 'voodoo economics' linked in the public mind with windfalls for the rich, hardship for the poor and soaring deficits on every side. The aim of the 'contract' was to appeal to the Ross Perot vote. But the astuteness of that calculation is far from clear.

The cherubic, gloating face of Newt Gingrich, the fiercely partisan minority whip who will succeed Tom Foley as Speaker if the Republicans capture the 40 seats required to control the House, has become the symbol of his party's campaign. 'Between 25 and 70' is his prediction of Republican gains on 8 November. But a figure at the upper end of that range means the Republicans must win back in their droves the 1992 defectors to Perot. Ostensibly the strategy is working. The Texan billionaire is back on the Larry King Show, raining abuse on the President, and urging supporters to vote Republican.

But if he stands for anything beyond his own aggrandisement, Perot stands for deficit reduction. Clinton, jetting around the country to support those candidates who consent to be seen with him, has assailed Republicans for turning to the past and 'a trillion dollars of unfunded promises', and vaunted his greatest feat on Capitol Hill, the 1993 package cutting the deficit by dollars 500bn. Those arguments will be a Democratic mantra in the three weeks to come.

Even so, faint Democratic hearts are understandable. The arithmetic looks unrelievedly grim. They are defending 22 of the 35 Senate seats up this time, 256 of 435 in the House, and 21 of 36 governorships. Of the Senate seats, a dozen are considered in danger, more than enough for the Republicans to pick up the net gain of seven they require. In the House, 40 is a far taller order, but no longer out of the question.

On the governors' front, the outlook is, if anything, gloomier. Quite possibly the Republicans will hold or capture the six largest states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania. That would imply, too, the downfall in New York of Mario Cuomo, a liberal talisman as potent as Ted Kennedy. The latest polls show Cuomo's opponent, George Pataki, a whisker ahead. Like Kennedy, Foley and the rest, it is not that Cuomo is especially loathed - he and they are simply judged to have been around too long.

As for Clinton, no spinning will obscure the disaster if losses on this scale occur. Some argue the worst outcome for him would be for the Democrats to suffer heavy casualties but to retain nominal control of Capitol Hill - the deadly formula of responsibility without power, whereby he and his party would be prisoner of its rebels. Far better, runs this theory, for the Democrats to lose outright. This would permit Clinton to run in 1996 against Congress, just as Harry Truman did back in 1948. The trouble with this theory is that Clinton, conciliator and procrastinator, is no warrior like Truman. But if the Republicans prove to have peaked too soon, all is not yet lost for the Democrats in 1994, nor for their President in 1996.

(Photograph omitted)