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That Sinking Feeling

The Republicans fumbled the impeachment issue and now may be in more trouble than the president.

November 08, 1998|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustrations of American Politics."

WASHINGTON — Impeachment struggles are political dynamite, and the outcome of Tuesday's election was like one of those action scenes in which a grenade gets flipped back to the one who tossed it--the Republicans. They are now on the road to civil war, and their wayward House Speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who announced Friday he will not seek reelection to the post and will leave Congress, is the first prominent casualty.

Impeachment proceedings could also come unglued if House Republicans, whose party lost five seats on Nov. 3, lose what's left of their nerve by Nov. 30. The prospects for the presidential and congressional elections in 2000 are also shifting in the Democrats' favor.

Until last week, the Republican Party was the most successful conservative party in the major Western democracies, thanks to its control of Congress and the sword of impeachment it held over President Bill Clinton's head. Now, following Tuesday's embarrassment, the GOP is in danger of losing its key psychological edge of 1994-96: Clinton's multiple and recurrent scandals.

More important, the congressional results handed Republicans the electoral equivalent of a do-it-yourself civil-war kit: worried moderates, bitter conservatives, suddenly tough impeachment decisions and a House speaker whose ethical vulnerability and recent strategic bumbling proved his undoing. Not since 1934 had the president's party managed a midterm gain in Congress. The GOP rank and file has a right to be nervous and eager for new leadership.

Furthermore, the likely prospect in Washington is for divided power to produce bitterly divisive and vengeance-minded government: the first-ever confrontation involving a Congress of one party that's just tried and failed to impeach the president of the other party. Republican Congresses and Democratic presidents haven't been all that successful in earlier cohabitations. But post-impeachment rancor could make those look like a love-in.

Democrats have already paid--and paid--for Clinton's scandals. From 1993 through this year, administration hopes and Democratic strength, from Washington to the statehouses, have been undercut by them. Clinton's place in history has been undermined, if not destroyed. Vice President Al Gore's image also has been damaged. The number of Republicans elected to governorships in the anti-Clinton elections of 1994 and then reelected this year will surely haunt the Democrats in the federal and state redistricting of 2001. U.S. politics have been pushed to the right.

All this, however, may now change. Since the early 1990s, the fundamental political tide in the Group of 7 industrial nations has been to the center-left, not to the center-right. Mounting evidence of the shift in the United States, Canada and even the upper house of the Japanese Parliament by 1992 and 1993 has surfaced, in the last few years, in France, Britain and Italy. The recent German elections were the icing on the center-left cake. The key reason the United States lagged in this leftward shift was the electorate's concerns about Clinton.

By capturing Congress in 1994, the Republicans kidded themselves for a while that voters were enthused over their "contract with America," but the 1996, and especially Tuesday's, elections have been revealing. When the current GOP Congress went home in mid-October, it left the public with a feeling that far less than usual had been achieved and that the GOP had no agenda except opportunism and rehashing the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

Bit by bit, Republicans had muted the political effectiveness of the scandal in three ways: first, by having so little else to talk about; second, by failing to present Clinton's actions in the Lewinsky matter in a context of broader misconduct, a failure that left them looking like co-conspirators in a Kenneth W. Starr panty raid; and third, by taking cues, at least in the House of Representatives, from a leader, Gingrich, whose own ethics were officially reprimanded in early 1997.

The upshot? What should have been a powerful issue for the GOP became a political boomerang.

It is too early to say, categorically, that the Republicans, who botched Watergate a quarter century ago, have now shown themselves just as incompetent as pursuers. But it's not too early to speculate about the consequences of the GOP fumbling its Clinton impeachment quest.

The two previous impeachment attempts, against Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Richard M. Nixon in 1974, were politically successful. True, the Senate acquitted Johnson by one vote in 1868, but the process dissipated his dwindling power. Failure to act against Clinton over the next two months, by contrast, would suggest that congressional Republicans were paper tigers and increase the likelihood that weak GOP performance in 1999-2000 would enable the Democrats to regain both the Senate and House.

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