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A National Election With Overarching Scope

October 18, 1998|Franklin J. Havlicek | Franklin J. Havlicek is a former NBC and Washington Post executive and editor of "Election Communications and the Election of 1992."

WASHINGTON — With the nation fast moving toward a national political culture, supported by network TV and 24-hour cable news, by national newspapers and the Internet, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) have together brought America to the verge of a new kind of congressional election. Our political system will never be the same, regardless of the merits or the formal outcome of the House impeachment proceedings against Clinton, over which Gingrich will preside in the next Congress.

Instead of a diverse competition among candidates in various local constituencies, the November congressional contests will be more like a parliamentary election, fought nationally by our two most important elected leaders and political innovators. As framed by Clinton and Gingrich, it is no less than an election between two parties supporting sharply different political programs, one liberal and the other conservative; between the Democratic president and the Republican Congress, as well as their respective branches of government; and, at its heart, between Clinton and Gingrich.

In this larger political context, Clinton and Gingrich are not just the most powerful members of their parties, they are their intellectual, ideological and strategic leaders. Even when their followers in Congress are unruly, or motivated by their own ambitions, Clinton and Gingrich are their parties' most influential spokesmen because they best understand the political uses of media, particularly television. For the national media, the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal is the story of the year (and probably next year, too). It is hard to imagine it will not profoundly affect the November vote.

Most politicians and pundits continue to say that this election is like any other midterm, that "all politics is local," as an earlier speaker, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, said. After all, there are no presidential coattails for congressional candidates to ride, and no overriding issue of war or economic policy. Only a handful of candidates are campaigning on their support for, or, still less often, their opposition to Clinton's impeachment.

Moreover, the Constitution's separation of the legislative and executive branches was itself designed to avoid the instability of parliamentary elections that can change an entire government in a day. The president is elected separately from the Congress. Moreover, under the Constitution, members of Congress are elected state by state and in local congressional districts, with no provision for national parties.

But this is a midterm election turning on an unusual circumstance: the looming question of whether Congress will impeach the president. Many voters will rightly see this election in terms of choosing between Clinton Democrats and Gingrich Republicans, since both parties have recast themselves ideologically under their respective leaders. In his 1992 win over an incumbent Republican president, Clinton emphasized economic growth and an activist government as core Democratic Party values. Just two years later, Gingrich enjoyed unexpected success in nationalizing the 1994 midterm election with his "contract with America." Based on tax and spending reductions and on social issues, Gingrich's campaign led to the first GOP Congress in nearly 50 years.

In doing so, Gingrich made the speakership into both a truly national office and the leadership position in his party. No other Republican figure inside or outside Congress has such power or prominence. Neither the Constitution nor political tradition confers comparable status on the Senate majority leader, who does not run for election at the same time as most of his colleagues and does not control the upper house in the same manner as the speaker. Gingrich, more than his Senate counterpart, has also used his position to more clearly distinguish House Republicans from Clinton's policies, even risking his speakership in the government shutdown that followed his first budget battle with the president. It is the House, not the Senate, that initiates impeachment under the Constitution.

This is why the impeachment process is so important. As in 1994, it is the political process designed by Gingrich to turn this year's elections into a single national election, not precisely a referendum on impeachment, but a device for bringing down Clinton politically and defeating his programs. Although he did not control the timing of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on the Lewinsky scandal, Gingrich did turn aside requests earlier this year for an interim report on the older Whitewater investigation. Gingrich also orchestrated the rapid-fire release to the public of Starr's report, Clinton's videotaped testimony and the Linda R. Tripp transcripts.

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