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Political Riptides

The impeachment process could pull under everyone involved--Republicans and Democrats alike.

September 20, 1998|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, the 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 — The impeachment of the president is starting to look like an incoming tide, as even Democratic House members are signing up and alternatives, such as censure, are losing constitutional and political credibility.

Yet, the impeachment proceedings may not be as much a grand constitutional battlefield as a political and moral minefield. Three Republican House members already have been outed for adultery or fathering illegitimate children, and Democrats are worrying about pre-election TV ads labeling them defenders of President Bill Clinton's immorality.

Plus, we have a trio of new lawyer jokes: Robert S. Bennett, the Clinton counselor who failed to settle with Paula Corbin Jones; David E. Kendall, whose continuing insistence that the president told the truth to the people and the grand jury is funnier than Jay Leno, and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, whose preoccupation with Monica S. Lewinsky seems to be wrapping the impeachment case in thong underwear rather than broader issues.

The November elections already are shaping up as a referendum on impeachment and vital signals as to which direction the expected November and December hearings should take. If the GOP increases its House majority by 15-20 seats after being worried about losing its control, those gains could be seen as an endorsement of impeachment. But if the Democrats recapture the House, it would be read as a strong dissent: Let Clinton off with a wink and a reprimand.

But this is a minefield, not a battlefield, a great and grand minefield in a perverse sort of way.

This White House is no ordinary administration, not just slightly soiled on the edges. Never before have a single president's scandals played a major role in four consecutive national elections: 1992 (Gennifer Flowers and the Arkansas draft board); 1994 (Troopergate, Whitewater and the Vincent W. Foster Jr. suicide enigma); 1996 (Jones, the FBI files and illegal Asian political contributions); and 1998 (Lewinsky, the Asian money, the groping of Kathleen E. Willey and who knows what else). Clinton has had about as many flavors of scandal in his tenure as Baskin-Robbins ice cream.

The Republican predicament, coming off this extraordinary electoral sequence, is that much of what enabled them to get control of Congress and keep it can be described in one word: scandal. Without Clinton's ethics, the Republicans wouldn't have won Congress in 1994, and without the Asian contributions scandal, they probably wouldn't have kept the House in 1996. Right now, the GOP looks like it will not only keep control in November but enlarge it--on Lewinsky coattails, so to speak.

But there is also a caution for the GOP. After six years of Clinton scandal-milking, the Republicans stand to rise or fall based on their handling of these themes that they've emphasized for so long. Starr has presented them with an 11-part impeachment case based on just one particular mess, and apparently the independent counsel's other inquiries--Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate--are also about to result in official reports. Then there's the likelihood that the guarded room of supporting material that Starr sent to Congress with the Lewinsky report has more firecrackers and cherry bombs. All this brings us back to the minefield.

If the Republicans in the House of Representatives don't have the guts or ability to turn Starr's material into a successful investigation, it calls into question the political integrity of what they've been saying for six years. Many Republicans in Congress would like to leave Clinton in power as a weakened incumbent, but they can't. Rank-and-file Republicans would be furious if the GOP leadership abandoned six years of rhetoric to merely censure or reprimand Clinton.

Conservative activists remember when Democrats got their chance to skewer President Richard M. Nixon in 1973, they happily put their impeachment bayonets where their political mouths had been. In spring of 1973, few American favored impeaching Nixon because of Watergate. But after a year of congressional hearings and courtroom trials, the impeachment numbers were up to 40% in June 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee began its final impeachment deliberations.

Republicans could face the same challenge in the the next few months if they decide to begin impeachment hearings later this year or in January. With support for impeachment only in the 27% range, according to the Gallup poll, they'll need to mount bold hearings with pivotal witnesses from across the whole range of identified scandals and allegations. They'll also need the help of a few trials, perhaps even one in which Clinton is identified as unindicted co-conspirator. Should the GOP fail to act, however, the same social-issue, moral-issue and pro-family Republicans who've been threatening to bolt the party could find this fumbling the last straw.

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