WASHINGTON -- The indictment of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., adds to an embarassing string of public disappointments for the Democrats that puts the party at increasing risk in the fall elections.
The loss by Rostenkowski of his position as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee goes beyond the demise of a powerful leader in Congress who could have engineered votes on behalf of President Clinton's health care plan.
The public will have its cynicism of politicians reinforced by accounts of another member of Congress charged with corruption. For the Democrats, it will be a long, hot summer of headlines and unflattering pretrial publicity for one of their own.
Lobbyists in Washington of both political stripes agree that the Democrats are running scared. Since Clinton's election, the Democrats have lost all nine major races against their Republican challengers.
In New York City, Rudolph Giuliani upset incumbent Mayor David Dinkins, and in Los Angeles Richard Riordan beat Michael Woo. Both cities had long-standing traditions of favoring Democrats, and Republican partisans are as hard to find as a cop on foot patrol.
In the Senate, Kay Bailey Hutchison defeated Robert Krueger, who failed to keep the Texas seat that he was appointed to fill following the departure of Lloyd Bentsen to become Treasury secretary. In Georgia, Paul Coverdell beat Rep. Wyche Fowler in a run-off race early last year.
The state gubernatorial and congressional races also yielded a clean sweep for Republicans. Mike Huckabee won the lieutenant governor's slot in Clinton's home state of Arkansas, and George Allen beat Attorney General Mary Sue Terry to take the governor's office in Virginia. Frank Lucas won in Oklahoma's 6th congressional district to take the place of retiring Rep. Glenn English, and Ron Lewis replaced Rep. William Natcher in Kentucky's 2nd district.
From the outset, the Democrats have been at risk in the fall elections because they have more members who are retiring this year than the Republicans. But the voting patterns so far indicate that there is also a broad malaise at work in the land that is working against the party.
No one doubts that the 256 to 178 advantage that the Democrats enjoy in the House will be whittled down, and the Republicans are optimistic about narrowing the 56 to 44 margin the Democrats now hold in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Clinton's health care plain is getting so knocked around in Congress that there is rising speculation that no bill at all will be passed before adjournment this fall. Clinton, in commenting on Rostenkowski's indictment, renewed his commitment to getting a bill passed this year.
But some Republicans suspect the Democrats' support for a bill is wavering, and the argument is making the rounds that the Democrats are looking for a legislative failure to pin on Republicans in hopes of picking up votes in the fall.
Procedurally, it is not at all clear the Democrats can agree on a health care bill as long as party liberals insist on some form of government-run program over one that is phased in and voluntary -- an approach that would presumably draw some Republican votes. And House Democrats do not want to go ahead and take the heat for a Clinton-like bill, only to see their work tossed out by the Senate. They remember last year when the Senate killed the controversial BTU energy tax after a lot of arm-twisting in the House to get it passed.
All of this adds up to a party that is adrift in stormy waters, bound for points unknown. The situation is all the more remarkable because the economy, which Clinton campaigned to fix, could not be doing much better.