Risks of a Clinton 'Shutdown Strategy' Reach Beyond Beltway

by Stuart Rothenberg, Roll Call

September 17, 1998 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

While White House strategists are emphasizing President Clinton's high, stable job approval numbers, Hill Democrats still have plenty of reason to be concerned about the commander-in-chief's political health.

Polling conducted by the national media and partisan pollsters shows Clinton's job approval numbers in the 60 to 65 percent range, little affected by the current scandal. But those numbers may be misleading.

It's starting to look as if the President's job ratings are only a measure of the public's confidence in the economy, not a more inclusive assesment of his presidency. If that is the case the President's job approval numbers aren't measuring changes in the public's attitude toward Clinton – and the voters could turn against the Democrats in November without the President's job numbers ever moving down.

Clearly, any dip in the President's job rating would be ominous for Democratic candidates, but the erosion in his personal favorable/unfavorable numbers, which has already begun, should also worry party strategists.

Interestingly, most public polls are showing that Congress's job approval numbers are not far behind the President's. One Washington Post/ABC poll had Clinton's job approval at 59 percent and Congress' at 56 percent, while a CBS News survey had the President's approval at 61 percent to Congress' 57 percent. Only a Sept. 9 and 10 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll had a significant gap between the President's job approval number (64 percent) and Congress (55 percent).

The public's support for the President has caused speculation that an early deal might be worked out between Hill Republicans and the White House to provide for a punishment of Clinton short of a Senate trial and conviction.

That notion ignores both the moral outrage on Capitol Hill and the short-term pressures on GOP legislators. Any deal that seems to let the President off the hook with only a slap on the wrist could anger Republican voters, undermining the strong November turnout that party operatives are counting on for significant electoral gains.

By all indication, we are headed into an impeachment process, and it is difficult to imagine anything that would derail it.

Since most Congressional Democrats clearly are very bothered by the President's conduct (and inane legal defense), the White House must somehow rally Democratic support on Capitol Hill. For now, most Congressional Democrats seem content to wring their hands about the President's conduct, but some liberals think it is time for the party to try to redirect public attention.

The obvious way for the White House to increase partisanship and rally Democratic support inside the Beltway, where it is weakest, is to get sympathetic allies to criticize the GOP for foot-dragging and to increase the volume of their complaints that the Republicans and independent counsel Kenneth Starr are engaged in a partisan witch hunt, intent on obscuring the Democratic agenda on education, HMO reform, teenage smoking and campaign finance reform.

Since polls show many Americans believe that Starr is trying to embarrass the President, and a clear majority of Democrats polled by the Los Angeles Times believe that Congress will consider the matter in a partisan political manner rather than fairly, the White House has at least some reason to believe that this strategy can be effective in Washington, as well as around the country,

In order to further encourage House and Senate Democrats to line up behind the President, Clinton may return to a government shutdown strategy, which he used so effectively in late 1995.

While Republicans and even influential members of the media would likely argue that the President was forcing a shutdown to distract attention from his personal problems, the strategy might work well enough to give him a breather from the scandal and put pressure on Hill Democrats to rally behind Clinton in the hope of using winning Democratic themes against the Republicans in the Fall.

While a shutdown would be risky, Clinton's weak position on Capitol Hill and with the media probably makes such a gamble more appealing. In fact, one knowledgeable Democrat suggested to me recently that while he believed that GOP legislative leaders were prepared to do anything to avoid a shutdown, including acceding to most of the White House's demands on the remainig appropriations bills, he was hoping that conservatives emboldened by the President's problems, would force a shutdown.

But while a polarizing strategy might help the President hold onto the White House, it would make Democratic candidates in swing states and districts awfully nervous about their own political futures. And that's a problem the White House will have trouble getting around.