Election is a referendum on Clinton

October 14, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- This is a strange election campaign. The dominant national issue is the future of President Clinton, but the candidates dare not make the outcome a referendum on that issue.

The problem is that there is so much uncertainty about how the impeachment drama will play itself out -- enough so any candidate puts himself far out on a limb by taking an absolutist position.

The conventional wisdom here now is that the House of Representatives is likely to vote some articles of impeachment early next year. This expectation is based on the fact that only five members of the House refused to vote for one of the resolutions authorizing the House Judiciary Committee to proceed with its preliminary investigation.

There is also a pervasive suspicion that Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich will pressure Republicans to support impeachment even if so few Democrats agree that the action appears blatantly partisan.

But, despite those votes for the committee to act, there is no assurance that the House will take the next step. That depends on, first, what the preliminary inquiry produces and, second, on the political context at the time. If the opinion polls continue to show a significant majority of Americans against impeachment, Mr. Gingrich could have trouble rallying a majority.

The conventional wisdom now also holds that even if the House impeaches the president, the Senate will not be willing to convict him and drive him from office. Republicans simply don't have the 67 votes required, pending election results; it's unlikely that enough Democrats would defect.

But, again, that depends first on whether the impeachment hearings in the House produce new information establishing that Mr. Clinton tried to obstruct justice by influencing the testimony of witnesses who appeared before the grand jury convened by (( independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

The uncertainty about what may come out has produced a peculiar situation in the campaign in which candidates of the two parties are essentially saying the same thing. With a few exceptions, Republicans and Democrats alike are condemning Mr. Clinton's behavior with Monica Lewinsky and his evasive answers in his grand jury testimony. But most of them are withholding any final judgment on the ground that these are questions that they will have to act on as members of the House or Senate next year and thus should not be prejudged.

The issue is not one, however, that many candidates, incumbents or challengers, are trying to exploit. There are a few, mostly social conservatives, who already have declared Mr. Clinton unfit for office and demanded his resignation. A couple have even fashioned television commercials in an attempt to seize what they consider the most popular ground in their districts.

On the other side, Mr. Clinton's most vocal support -- indeed, almost his only support -- is coming from African-American officeholders and candidates in an effort to rally a higher turnout than has been expected. But most of them run in districts with so many black voters that the results are foregone conclusions.

What most candidates are finding is that all the attention that has been focused on the Lewinsky affair and now on impeachment has made it difficult for them to cut through the noise with their own messages. Polls suggest the Democrats hold an edge on such issues as education and health care reform. But when the presidency is hanging in the balance, it isn't easy to turn attention to legislative matters.

The one obvious consensus in the electorate is the demand for a quick resolution of the scandal. Americans have no stomach for another round of tedious examination of facts they already believe have been well established.

If the impeachment investigation is allowed to drag on beyond the campaign and into next year, the national dialogue will be as peculiar as it is today -- ignoring the one issue that is so obviously the most important facing the nation today.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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