FAR MORE than a victory for the National Rifle Association, or extreme Republican partisans like the minority whip, Newt Gingrich, the House of Representatives' refusal on Thursday to take up the administration's cherished dollars 33bn ( pounds 21bn) crime bill amounts to a devastating repudiation of Bill Clinton by his own party, which - unless swiftly reversed - could seal the failure of his presidency.
The vote will have a host of lesser consequences. Almost certainly it reduces his chances of victory in the yet more complex legislative battle for health-care reform. It may well spur electoral backlash this autumn against a Congress so gridlocked it is unable to act on the single issue which most worries ordinary Americans.
But in this fetid and rancorous Washington August, one fact is incontrovertible. Mr Clinton may rail at the Republicans and the NRA, and vow to carry his case to the people. But the procedural motion that would have brought the crime bill to a final floor vote was defeated because 58 Democrats, almost a quarter of the party's House contingent, voted against their own President. Such is the scant authority and respect he commands, in the country at large and on Capitol Hill.
A breakdown of the vote could hardly alarm Democratic strategists more. The dissenters were of every hue. Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, voted 'no' because of his complaints at Mr Clinton's handling of foreign policy. A clutch of black Democratic congressmen voted against because the bill broadened the death penalty and did not allow death row appeals on the grounds of racial discrimination.
But the core of the rebellion was a block of moderate to conservative white Southern Democrats. They are anything but squeamish on crime. They, too, will have to explain in this autumn's mid-term campaigning why they acted as they did. Many of them were cut from the same pragmatic 'New Democrat' cloth Mr Clinton wrapped around himself in 1992, promising to build centrist cross- party coalitions to 'get things done' in Washington.
Yesterday that cloth, and that strategy, were in tatters. On both crime and health care, bipartisanship is next to non-existent. Only 11 pro-gun control Republicans, all advocates of the bill's ban on 19 types of assault weapon, voted with the Democrats. On health care it could be that none do. As for the Southern Democrats, such an albatross has this Southern President become, that they calculate a vote against crime control is a smaller risk than a vote for Mr Clinton. Indeed a leaked internal Democratic memo last week advised candidates to run on their own, and not Mr Clinton's, record.
Possibly, the Democratic House leadership will get the bill back on the floor next week - indeed the bitter irony for President Clinton is that, had the House held a substantive vote on the measure itself, it would have passed. Now, fiddling with its contents could lose more votes than it wins.
Mr Clinton's resilience is legendary. But he is within a hairsbreadth of becoming another Jimmy Carter, a 'weak' President brimming with good intentions but unable to get things done.
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