THE best proof that what happens to a president can have a powerful effect on elections all over the United States was in 1962 when President Kennedy's ``standing up'' to the Russians gave a decided lift to Democrats involved in the midterm voting.
That year Abner Mikva, now the new Clinton White House counsel, was seeking reelection for Congress in Illinois. He told the Monitor's breakfasters the other morning about a political climate then that many people have forgotten. President Kennedy was facing widespread criticism and sagging in the polls. Political analysts were predicting sizable gains for Republican candidates. Then, as Mikva related the happenings, Kennedy's act of great determination and courage turned around the election.
That fall I was in Wisconsin covering the senatorial race in which Democrat Gaylord Nelson was seeking to unseat the longtime GOP incumbent, Alexander Wiley. Mr. Nelson's youth and vigor, plus the widely held view in his state that he had been a successful governor, had brought him far but not far enough: Senator Wiley remained the strong favorite to win.
There was despondency in the Nelson camp just before the missile crisis. Then came this shocking news that the Russians had planted offensive missiles in Cuba and that a nuclear war, with missiles hitting our big cities, could happen within a few hours - unless Khrushchev pulled the missiles out.
As the world held its breath, it was Kennedy against Krushchev -
with our young president standing firm and facing down his adversary.
This glowing Kennedy triumph was immediately translated into a big rise in his standing in the polls. Kennedy's gain had a ripple effect, helping Democrats in races at all levels. One could quickly sense the new hope in the Nelson camp. He won, along with many other Democrats who had been engaged in contests in which they were behind before the crisis.
How shall we measure the political impact of President Clinton's recent involvements abroad? He seems to have scored some successes - although we must wait for those actions to play out before being sure. We can be certain that the problems in Haiti, Iraq, North Korea, and the Middle East aren't likely to provide the presidential-testing possibilities that Kennedy's Cuba crisis offered.
Clinton has risen somewhat in the polls. A public that strongly opposed US entry into Haiti now approves of the way our military is getting its job done there. Most Americans see Clinton's actions toward Iraq as correct; they hail his approach to North Korea's nuclear threat and his peacemaking role in the Middle East.
Clinton himself is out campaigning in the hope that he can stave off the prospect of decided Republican gains that could make it very difficult for him to push legislation forward in the last two years of his term. He's stressing his achievements overseas, hoping this will turn around the public impression that he has been indecisive in dealing with foreign affairs.
Can this rising tide of support for Clinton - even though it may be of limited proportions - raise Democratic prospects all around the country? Could it win some close races?
One answer comes from the Democrats. Their strategists and candidates say that all off-year elections are ``local'' and that whether Clinton is up or down makes no difference in the outcome of their races. Another answer has been in their actions: Most Democratic candidates don't want Clinton to campaign for them. Most don't even mention his name.
Implicit in this shunning of Clinton is an admission that a president can have an effect on these elections - a negative one.
But these Democrats may be wrong about Clinton's impact. An improved public perception of the president might yet win some contests that party candidates might otherwise lose. It might avert a GOP landslide.