Scandal's machinations hide Washington's spotty record

October 15, 1998|By Ronald Brownstein

OFFICIAL Washington dodged a bullet a week ago when the House voted to authorize an unrestricted, open-ended impeachment inquiry against President Clinton. If the vote had, somehow, gone the other way, the capital's political and media establishment might have been compelled to expeditiously reach a judgment on Mr. Clinton's punishment and eventually find something else to argue about -- such as why Congress and the president haven't accomplished almost anything meaningful since the budget deal last summer.

Now, thanks to the House vote, there's no risk of that. Instead, we can all look forward to months -- and maybe even a year -- of Chris Matthews ranting, Geraldo Rivera emoting, Larry Flynt trolling, William J. Bennett moralizing, Georgia Republican Bob Barr fulminating and Florida Democrat Robert Wexler shouting.

Mr. Clinton can apologize in every time zone; Monica S. Lewinsky and Rupert Murdoch can bring her unique, knee-high view of history into every living room.

No bipartisan effort

Two large lessons emerged from last week's House vote. The minimal Democratic support for the Republican resolution showed that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the GOP to force Mr. Clinton from office before his term ends. (A House vote to impeach Mr. Clinton remains possible, but no matter how the election turns out, Republicans will need at least seven and possibly as many as 12 Democratic Senate votes to convict and remove the president, a number that now seems far out of reach.)

On the other hand, the unified Republican support for the resolution shows that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the GOP to abandon the effort to remove Mr. Clinton any time soon.

So, absent decisive new evidence or an unambiguous signal from the voters in next month's election, Washington is likely to remain stuck for some time in a crisis that feels strangely theoretical and abstract, yet is consuming all else.

For most of this year, it has been Democrats complaining that the scandal was obliterating their agenda. But lately, conservatives have unexpectedly found themselves eclipsed, too.

The source of the Democratic distress is obvious: Mr. Clinton and congressional Democrats have not been able to build any momentum for their policy proposals while the White House has been forced to spend most of its energy defending the president's indefensible behavior.

The cause of the conservative malaise is more subtle: Because congressional Republicans are confident that the scandal will inspire their base voters to turn out next month, they became reluctant in the session's last weeks to provide Mr. Clinton any policy fights that might energize Democrats.

That's why, for instance, the Senate GOP leadership last week decided to quietly pull the plug on a House-passed plan for an $80 billion tax cut. That denied an argument to Mr. Clinton, who was prepared to veto the plan as a threat to Social Security, but it understandably struck the right as odd to concede ground to the president precisely because he is weak.

That cautious approach may bring gains to the Republicans in the midterm elections. But it does nothing to help them define an agenda that can rebuild a national majority in the presidential race of 2000. Although few Republicans like to dwell on it, the party's share of the vote in the past two presidential elections has been its smallest in consecutive campaigns since the Depression. "The Republican presidential coalition of the 1980s is still broke," says Jeff Bell, president of the Campaign for Working Families, a conservative political action committee.

If anything, the scandal has masked the depth of the divisions inside the GOP on how to repair that break. Earlier this year, House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, an Ohio Republican, tried to rally the party around a sweeping new round of budget cuts that would have eliminated the Energy and Commerce departments.

What revolution?

But he was forced to severely dilute the proposal in the House, and it was shelved altogether in the Senate. The same thing happened on taxes: House Republican leaders had to miniaturize their tax-cut proposal to win a majority in their chamber, only to see the Senate, again, drop the idea. "Virtually all of the revolutionary fervor Republicans came in with in 1994," grouses Stephen Moore of the libertarian Cato Institute, "has fizzled."

Ironically, Democrats these days are actually more unified on their policy priorities than Republicans -- and more unified than at any time during Mr. Clinton's presidency. Around the country, Democratic candidates may be running away from Mr. Clinton personally, but they are almost all running on the agenda he laid out in the State of the Union: increasing spending on education, regulating health maintenance organizations and preserving the budget surplus for Social Security.

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