BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
She may have spoken too soon.
After a few weeks of hemming and hawing, Roxanne Qualls -- Cincinnati's mayor and Democratic candidate for Congress in the 1st District -- decided the other day that, yes, she would show up this week at a Democratic fund-raiser in Amberley Village featuring Bill Clinton. Ordinarily, this would be a no-brainer. You are a candidate for Congress; you are running against a strong incumbent. The president comes to your town; you show up and get your photo-op. End of story. That's the way it went in March, the last time President Clinton showed up in Cincinnati for a Democratic fund-raiser: and Ms. Qualls was more than happy to be seen at the president's side.
The situation has gotten a bit more complicated since then. Then, we didn't have the Starr report, which can be read in all its lurid detail by anyone in the world who has access to the Internet and which, in a few days, will be leaping to the top of the New York Times' paperback best-seller list.
It's not so much the cheesy sex stuff that is the problem here, although for most presidents that alone would be enough to not only make them resign but make them find a nice shack in Idaho and never show their faces in public again.
It is the 11 possible impeachable offenses that are the problem -- particularly the allegation of abuse of office. That, after all, is what sent Richard Nixon packing; he learned it is not the crime, but the cover-up.
All of this incredibly bizarre baggage has fallen in the laps of Democratic congressional candidates around the country -- people like Ms. Qualls -- who are, after all, innocent bystanders out there trying to talk about things like HMO reform, Social Security, the environment.
Over the next seven weeks, voters will expect, even insist, that congressional candidates tell them what they think of the president's conduct and whether or not they believe he should resign or be impeached.
So far, Ms. Qualls has said little on the subject. Right after the president's grand jury testimony in August, she did say that she thought the situation "unfortunate" for the president, his family and the nation.
Unfortunate, for most of us, is when a felt tip pen leaks in the breast-pocket of your favorite shirt. Unfortunate is when the dog eats the remote control.
This leaves unfortunate way behind.
What is unfortunate for Democrats running for Congress this fall is the timing of all this, less than two months before the election. Mr. Nixon, at least, had a sense of timing and left office in early August, before the 1974 congressional elections were under way. Republicans were hammered in that election anyway, but at least they didn't have to get hammered in the middle of a Senate trial. It is unfair for a candidate such as Ms. Qualls in the sense that her opponent, incumbent Republican Steve Chabot, gets a free pass on this one. He never had much use for Mr. Clinton in the first place; he is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which will take up the question of impeachment; and he has a perfect excuse to be judicious in his comments.
Ms. Qualls, on the other hand, will have to deal with this question for the next 51 days, like it or not.
Last week, when she announced she had re-arranged her schedule to attend the Clinton fund-raiser, she tried to soften the blow by sending the White House a letter from the mayor's office inviting the president, while he is in town, to tour one of the Cincinnati neighborhoods that is applying for a federal "empowerment zone" grant.
It was a nifty idea, one which allowed her to say that she was not meeting the president for the crass political purpose of grubbing for campaign dollars. Instead, she could meet the president for the official purpose of grubbing federal dollars. It could, the Qualls campaign thought, soften the blow a bit.
The neighborhood tour may or may not happen; the White House hasn't said yet. But it is hard to imagine that this president will be strolling through many American neighborhoods any time soon.
Howard Wilkinson covers politics for the Enquirer.