Partisan impeachment process could cost GOP support

September 28, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The operative question now is how far the Republicans are prepared to carry the investigation of President Clinton without achieving at least a semblance of bipartisanship.

Simple arithmetic tells us that the president cannot be impeached on Republican votes alone. There are 55 Republicans in the Senate, and 67 votes would be required to remove the president from office after an impeachment trial there.

But, arithmetic aside, it would be politically foolhardy for the Republicans to press a case that would be seen by the electorate as a totally partisan exercise. That is precisely what has happened so far in the only voting on the case -- that of the House Judiciary Committee -- breaking along strict party lines.

It was noteworthy, however, that the Democrats in the minority on the committee were making their protest on strictly procedural questions. None of them put themselves out front defending the innocence of the president, reflecting Mr. Clinton's failure to build close relationships with members of Congress. Some Democrats have put themselves on record against impeachment, but none has taken the position that he is a blameless victim of the excesses of independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

House Republicans now appear committed to go ahead with at least a preliminary inquiry on whether there is evidence of "high crimes and misdemeanors" deserving an impeachment vote. And the Judiciary Committee clearly has the votes to draw up articles of impeachment for consideration by the full House.

Confronted with a similar situation with Watergate and Richard Nixon nearly 25 years ago -- with Democrats then controlling the House -- the same committee did not bring the articles to a vote until assured there would be several Republicans agreeing that the action was justified. Once that happened, the floodgates were open and enough Republicans spoke out for impeachment so that a bipartisan majority was assured.

At that point, senior Republicans -- Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and House Minority Leader John Rhodes of Arizona -- were able to tell Nixon that the votes simply weren't available to save him. Faced with the inevitability of impeachment, Nixon resigned Aug. 9, 1974.

Although a few die-hard Nixon supporters insisted he had been railroaded, the fact that the action crossed party lines undermined those complaints.

The political problem for the Republicans in this case is that the evidence against Mr. Clinton, boiled to its essence, is only that he conducted an illicit sexual affair with a young woman and then lied about it. The record so far fails to provide hard evidence that Mr. Clinton suborned perjury, obstructed justice or abused the power of his office, although Mr. Starr insists that is the case.

Pursuing its own verdict on impeachment, the Judiciary Committee has the option of holding public hearings and going over all the ground again in the hope of establishing Mr. Clinton's culpability in unmistakable terms. But it's hard to imagine what the Republicans could find after the exhaustive Starr report.

The Republicans also must deal with conflicting currents in public opinion. Mr. Clinton retains the support of most Americans for his performance in office even though most voters also disapprove of his personal behavior. And, perhaps equally important, most Americans are sick of the whole episode and want the government to go forward, not dwell indefinitely on the scandal.

But those who want to pursue the case through the impeachment process include many socially conservative voters from the religious right, a critical constituency for many Republicans in the Nov. 3 midterm elections and for the party in the 2000 presidential election.

The political dynamics could change, however. If, for example, the Democrats lose heavily in the November election, some of them may be more inclined to seek Mr. Clinton's removal from office through either impeachment or resignation.

At the moment, nonetheless, there seems little chance of a truly bipartisan move toward impeachment. And there seems a strong possibility that the House Republicans will be seen as stringing out the whole ugly mess for their own partisan reasons.

If that happens, the Republicans will have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

RTC

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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