The voters have spoken: Stop the impeachment process

November 05, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Even before the dimensions of their debacle were fully revealed Tuesday evening, Republican congressional leaders were responding with interesting insouciance. Displaying an inventiveness they might try applying to the development of an agenda, Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Majority Leader Dick Armey said essentially this:

The president's party prospered because he enjoyed an unfair advantage. Which was? Monica. The sex scandal and impeachment proceedings obsessed the media (Mr. Gingrich), so Republicans were unable to get their message out (Mr. Armey).

Actually, the message was out, which is why Republicans, not Democrats, were depressed. But saddened conservatives -- farsighted conservatives are dry-eyed about Tuesday -- should consider: What if the party had prospered on the basis of its recent performance?

Republican winners in the last midterm elections promised a serious re-examination of Washington's post-New Deal role, and particularly its Great Society filigrees. By the end of last month's budget surrender to President Clinton, in which taxes were not cut and spending caps were not respected, Republicans ratified the ethic of rapacity produced by omnipresent, all-providing government.

Voters tend to believe ideas that they see believed. For four years there has been a rolling referendum on the government as it exists, and the government has won it.

The GOP agenda

Whether the Republican Party's retreat from clarity is cause or effect, the fact is that the country does not want the conservative agenda -- abolishing Cabinet departments, and much else -- as enunciated in 1994. That should be a relief to many, probably most, congressional Republicans, who no longer believe in that agenda, if they ever did.

Congressional Republicans might now flinch from recriminations and insurrections against their leaders. It is difficult to split rotten wood. On the other hand, Republicans might experience three-dimensional civil war.

Anti-abortion Republicans say the party's most stinging defeat -- the trouncing of Dan Lungren in California's gubernatorial race -- proves that Republicans cannot wage the 2000 presidential campaign without an anti-abortion member on the national ticket and a diluted abortion plank in its platform. Second, Mr. Gingrich's Tuesday evening emphasis on the success of "tax-cutting" Republican governors was a not-very-veiled disparagement of the Republican-controlled Senate, the Siberia where tax-cutting ideas languish in exile.

Third, Republican leaders engineered the end-of-session carnival of spending capitulations. They authored the October ads associating the party with what the country hates most -- prolongation of the Monica subject. And on Tuesday afternoon, they tantalized followers with forecasts of substantial gains of House seats. These leaders may yet turn around and see former followers who suddenly have, like Brutus, lean and hungry looks.

On Tuesday Republicans became the first party since before the Civil War to lose seats to the party of a president in his second term. Dashed Republican hopes included that of defeating an incumbent senator (Ernest Hollings) in South Carolina, the most Republican state in the most conservative region, and of defeating the most liberal senator (Barbara Boxer) in the state weightiest in presidential politics (California).

Politics of virtue

As California's 54 (after 2000, perhaps 58) electoral votes have become more elusive to Republicans, the South has become more crucial. There Republicans lost two incumbent governors (in South Carolina and Alabama), largely because they, practicing the politics of virtue, opposed lotteries as a source of revenues. In these two bastions of the religious right, the public said that if virtue costs money, it costs too much.

The impotence of the Republican-controlled Congress against Mr. Clinton may indicate that the conservatives' belief in legislative supremacy is dead, killed by executive power armed with modern communication technologies. Fortunately, Republicans are rhetorically (and in their most important recent accomplishment, welfare reform, actually) committed to devolution of power from Washington. The sinews of Republican strength are in governorships kept or captured Tuesday (Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Florida, Texas).

For some conservatives, the Republican presidential nomination contest did not begin Tuesday night, it ended then. Their task, they now think, is to equip the most eligible governor, George W. Bush, with a cultural agenda without a serrated edge. Another big winner Tuesday, New York's Gov. George Pataki, who is anti-abortion and has about as much edge as tapioca, typifies what might become the expanded pool for the national ticket.

But first, one mandate conspicuous in the tossed-salad of Tuesday's results this: Liquidate the impeachment process. Believers in justice, the Constitution and the rule of law may regret this and say, in John Quincy Adams' words, that Republicans should not be "palsied by the will of our constituents." Political prudence says something else.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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