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All's Not Necessarily Well That Ends Well

Impeachment: Feeling feisty after the election, Democrats may overplay their hand.

November 20, 1998|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. E-mail:

Sometimes even the most elaborately scripted and synchronized events go awry. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) had barely started speaking when Democrats broke in and demanded more time for White House lawyers to rebut Independent Counsel Ken Starr's not-yet-delivered testimony. As the hours wore by, it was clear that the Democrats were bent on derailing the planned pageantry. Indeed, the minority brought far more scrappy passion to the proceedings than the majority.

Funny, just two months ago, Democrats accused Republicans of wanting to stretch the proceedings out; now it is the GOP that wants out. Yet the megaquestion is still unanswered: Who will ultimately benefit most from a protracted process?

Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, signaled from the get-go the Democrats' eagerness to engage. "It is not now acceptable in America to investigate a person's private sexual activity," he said in his opening statement. Warming to his theme, he denounced "federally paid sex policemen spending millions of dollars to trap an unfaithful spouse." Conyers went on to warn against "rogue attorneys and investigators" motivated by their ideological and sexual "obsessions." Using such strong rhetoric, Conyers perhaps purposefully echoed the explosive language of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) as he detonated the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. Bork was an "extremist" who would trample the Constitution, Kennedy said then; in Bork's America, "rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids."

Evidently House Democrats, emboldened by the November election returns--in which they confounded history by gaining seats--see a chance to take the offensive in the Judiciary hearings, shifting the issue from impeachment to "privacy." Not surprisingly, they have plenty of allies in academe; in his just-released book, "Sexual McCarthyism: Clinton, Starr and the Emerging Constitutional Crisis," Harvard Law School's Alan Dershowitz writes that the Starriors "overreached, overreacted, exaggerated and pressed every issue to the limits of its logic."

For the time being, the GOP concedes that privacy trumps perjury. House Republicans have replaced three of the top five leaders who led them to deep disappointment earlier this month. In his acceptance speech to the House Republican Conference, Speaker-to-be Bob Livingston never mentioned divisive social issues. And one of the other new faces is Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), who represents, ideologically as well as literally, the moderate soccer-mom suburbs where Republicans have hemorrhaged. Davis was elected to chair the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign group for the House GOP.

Audrey Mullen, executive director of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative grass-roots group, praises Davis as "a pragmatic moderate who focuses mostly on winning elections on a district-by-district basis, which is something too many people in our party have forgotten how to do."

For that "sin," Davis was furiously opposed by the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and the Eagle Forum--the very groups that have helped saddle the GOP with an image of narrow-minded intolerance. And so it was indicative of the new mood that Davis handily defeated the incumbent in the campaign committee post, Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), a Newt Gingrich protege who authorized the "Shall we reward Bill Clinton?" TV spots that backlashed so badly late in this fall's campaign.

But with the impeachment matter most likely moribund, the political agenda is likely to shift to, among other things, the 2000 elections. Interestingly, the Democrats, spearheaded by counsel Abbe Lowell, barely contested the substance of Starr's charges, preferring to dwell instead on procedural punctilio. In other words, the Democrats implicitly concede Clinton's guilt, even as they minimize its significance.

Yet while the president is probably safe, it seems that he has left his party at risk. Democrats may have the backlash advantage today, but that could flip tomorrow if they let their lifestyle-liberation wing, in its eagerness to stomp Starr, define the party as soft on adultery.

Interestingly, George W. Bush, the Republican governor of Texas, leads Vice President Al Gore by between 8 and 18 points in recent presidential polls. That could be the ironic capstone to the controversy: Having led a clean and sober life--maybe more so than young Bush--Gore will be the one who has the most explaining to do on the next campaign trail.

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