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National Perspective | CONGRESS

'Six-Year Itch' Casting a Shaky Shadow Over 1998 Elections

Party in White House typically loses seats at that benchmark. But Democrats take comfort from public's contentment.

January 06, 1998|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — If history is any guide, Democrats should be shaking in their boots as they view the approaching 1998 midterm campaign.

The vote will come as President Clinton is wrapping up his sixth year in office--a benchmark that traditionally translates into hefty congressional losses for the incumbent's party.

Instead, Democrats are taking comfort from the current public mood of contentment, an attitude that, if it persists, argues against their suffering from the so-called "six-year itch."

But here's the rub: That same benign political environment--relatively favorable ratings for Clinton as well as the Republican-controlled Congress--also stands in the way of Democrats' achieving what amounts to their holy grail: recapturing control of the House of Representatives. That body had been their most dependable national power base for 40 years, before they lost it in the stunning GOP triumph in the 1994 midterm elections.

"In 1994, we were sailing into a big head wind," said Democratic consultant Mark Mellman. "In 1996, we had a tail wind," which helped the Democrats regain nine House seats.

But in 1998, with the economy perking along and peace reigning abroad, "I don't think there is much of a wind at all," Mellman said.

Of course, this placid prospect could be altered by an economic downturn at home or a crisis abroad before election day. But current indicators seem to undercut the prospect of the big turnovers that marked several past "six-year itch" elections, in which voters clearly vented their frustration at the party controlling the White House by taking a heavy toll on that party's strength on Capitol Hill.

"The public is generally content," acknowledged Rep. John Linder of Georgia, chairman of the House Republican campaign committee. "They had their six-year itch election in 1994."

Mindful of the national mood, Republican strategists have no plans for a rewrite of 1994's "contract with America," the list of conservative goals that served as a rallying point for GOP candidates as they marched toward the historic sweep of both houses of Congress.

"I don't think we'll have a national manifesto," Linder said. "We are going to run a lot of local elections."

On the issue front, Republicans are hoping to pick up support by pushing the drive they began this year to overhaul the federal Tax Code. But by promoting their own plans for tax revision, Democrats expect to blunt that offensive. "As long as we can pick out areas of tax reform, we'll be OK," asserts Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Reflecting on the order of battle in national politics, Louisiana State University political scientist James Campbell said: "I think we are at kind of a standoff."

Even open seats in the 435-member House--always prime targets for each party--divide evenly. As of now, 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans have announced they are not seeking reelection.

Despite the apparent impasse, the GOP remains optimistic of making at least modest gains next fall. In part, that's because the incumbent president's party almost invariably loses seats in the election year after a presidential election.

Indeed, only once in this century has the president's party not lost ground in an off-year election--in 1934, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was battling the Great Depression and voters rewarded Democrats with gains of nine seats in both the House and Senate.

In 1998, there is also the matter of money. The Republican House campaign committee expects to raise about $26 million, roughly double what the Democrats will raise. And that's just part of an overall GOP financial edge--the Democratic National Committee, unlike its Republican counterpart, is operating in red ink, largely because of legal expenses arising from disclosures of the party's 1996 fund-raising practices.

Democratic officials have tried to shrug off this disadvantage. "We don't need to outspend [Republicans]; we only need to have enough money to communicate a solid message," said Rob Engel, director of the Democratic House campaign committee.

The fact that Democrats only need to win 11 seats to regain control of the House, party officials say, is helping them recruit strong candidates attracted by the chance to be part of a new majority.

But even these officials concede Democrats face an uphill fight, causing some to argue that if they are to gain ground on Capitol Hill, they need to break through the public's indifference by running political risks.

Discussing the mood of the voters, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, chairman of the Democratic Senate campaign committee, said: "It's worse than contentment. It's that they don't believe that any of this matters."

He added: "We have to show that we have the courage to do the right thing, not just the politically right thing." He cited entitlement reform as the sort of sensitive issue Democratic candidates should tackle. "You need to shake things up."

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