The more time wears on, the more it looks as if the Monica S. Lewinsky episode has become a misleading diversion, one that deludes the rest of the nation about what’s really happening in Washington and American politics.
Pay attention to the White House crisis and you might think the only development of consequence here is that a Democratic president is under siege. But there is also a broader story, and it runs in the reverse direction.
On issue after issue these days, the Republican Party is so split that it can’t come up with any unified policy or coherent response to President Clinton. The Democrats, by contrast, have been bridging their divisions.
Thus, paradoxically, while the nation has been wondering whether Clinton will survive in the White House, the longer-term question is whether the Republicans are squabbling their way into becoming a minority party once again.
Let’s take the issues that have dominated the news over the last three months: Iraq, the Asian financial crisis and, of course, the Lewinsky controversy. What have the Republicans said and done?
On Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) criticized the deal reached with Saddam Hussein, complaining that Clinton had “subcontracted” American foreign policy to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) supported the Iraq agreement and said he had no problems with having Annan serve as a mediator.
On the Lewinsky matter, we have just seen a vintage GOP performance. Last weekend, Lott opined that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr should wrap up his investigation and “show his cards.” Gingrich, on the other hand, supported Starr. By Monday, Lott switched direction, calling upon Clinton to come forward and tell the truth.
In other words, on the hottest political issues of early 1998, the nation’s two leading elected Republican officials have been unable to work out a common stance.
Perhaps one might write off this spectacular disunity merely to personality clashes, or to Gingrich’s evident desire to run for president. In fact, these disagreements also reflect the broader tensions within the GOP.
On foreign policy, Republican leaders are under pressure from three strong and often competing factions within the party. We might call them the Suits, the Populists and the Hawks.
The Suits are the Republicans’ business constituency, its traditional bedrock of support. The Populists are those activists interested primarily in social issues like abortion and religious persecution. And the Hawks are those eager to advance American power and values overseas.
On Iraq, Lott was representing the views of the Hawks, while Gingrich was speaking for the Suits. On the Starr investigation, the Senate majority leader seemed to be siding with the Suits, since the corporate crowd finds the entire Lewinsky affair distasteful. The House speaker was advancing the views of the Populists, for whom Clinton’s personal behavior is the main issue.
Now look at the Republicans’ response to Asia’s financial crisis. In Washington, the most important piece of legislation to address this problem is the bill for $18 billion in new funding for the International Monetary Fund that is now headed for the floor of the House of Representatives.
Typically, the Republicans are badly split, with the main divisions between the Suits and the Populists. Business groups are now lobbying and, indeed, pleading with Congress to approve the IMF funding. Social conservatives are trying to tack on amendments that would deny the funds unless there is a ban on U.S. contributions to international groups that support abortions.
By contrast, this same IMF legislation illustrates how the divisions among the Democrats have at least temporarily eased.
Last fall, the Democrats seemed torn between a business-oriented wing of the party, represented by Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, and a wing sympathetic to organized labor, led by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
This split was the main factor behind Clinton’s failure to win passage last fall of legislation granting him “fast-track” authority to negotiate new trade agreements. Labor opposed the legislation on grounds that it failed to include protections for American workers, and congressional Democrats, led by Gephardt, backed labor’s position.
Now, however, in a way that could not have been predicted two months ago, the two wings of the Democratic Party have begun to line up behind the IMF legislation. Gephardt himself has endorsed the measure.
One reason is the AFL-CIO and those congressional Democrats sympathetic to labor are going along with the Clinton administration’s effort to get money for the IMF. “American workers could be affected by a collapse of the currencies in these Asian countries,” says Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
Over the last few years, the Republicans have sometimes managed to overcome internal disagreements by unifying around a single theme: their intense opposition to Clinton.
But Lott’s remarks about Starr’s probe show that this refuge may be disappearing. Even the process of attacking Clinton, it seems, can set GOP leaders against one another. This is the sign of a party in serious trouble.
Jim Mann’s column appears in this space every Wednesday.