That Sinking Feeling

Kevin Phillips, publisher of American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustrations of American Politics."

Impeachment struggles are political dynamite, and the outcome of Tuesday’s election was like one of those action scenes in which a grenade gets flipped back to the one who tossed it--the Republicans. They are now on the road to civil war, and their wayward House Speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who announced Friday he will not seek reelection to the post and will leave Congress, is the first prominent casualty.

Impeachment proceedings could also come unglued if House Republicans, whose party lost five seats on Nov. 3, lose what’s left of their nerve by Nov. 30. The prospects for the presidential and congressional elections in 2000 are also shifting in the Democrats’ favor.

Until last week, the Republican Party was the most successful conservative party in the major Western democracies, thanks to its control of Congress and the sword of impeachment it held over President Bill Clinton’s head. Now, following Tuesday’s embarrassment, the GOP is in danger of losing its key psychological edge of 1994-96: Clinton’s multiple and recurrent scandals.


More important, the congressional results handed Republicans the electoral equivalent of a do-it-yourself civil-war kit: worried moderates, bitter conservatives, suddenly tough impeachment decisions and a House speaker whose ethical vulnerability and recent strategic bumbling proved his undoing. Not since 1934 had the president’s party managed a midterm gain in Congress. The GOP rank and file has a right to be nervous and eager for new leadership.

Furthermore, the likely prospect in Washington is for divided power to produce bitterly divisive and vengeance-minded government: the first-ever confrontation involving a Congress of one party that’s just tried and failed to impeach the president of the other party. Republican Congresses and Democratic presidents haven’t been all that successful in earlier cohabitations. But post-impeachment rancor could make those look like a love-in.

Democrats have already paid--and paid--for Clinton’s scandals. From 1993 through this year, administration hopes and Democratic strength, from Washington to the statehouses, have been undercut by them. Clinton’s place in history has been undermined, if not destroyed. Vice President Al Gore’s image also has been damaged. The number of Republicans elected to governorships in the anti-Clinton elections of 1994 and then reelected this year will surely haunt the Democrats in the federal and state redistricting of 2001. U.S. politics have been pushed to the right.

All this, however, may now change. Since the early 1990s, the fundamental political tide in the Group of 7 industrial nations has been to the center-left, not to the center-right. Mounting evidence of the shift in the United States, Canada and even the upper house of the Japanese Parliament by 1992 and 1993 has surfaced, in the last few years, in France, Britain and Italy. The recent German elections were the icing on the center-left cake. The key reason the United States lagged in this leftward shift was the electorate’s concerns about Clinton.

By capturing Congress in 1994, the Republicans kidded themselves for a while that voters were enthused over their “contract with America,” but the 1996, and especially Tuesday’s, elections have been revealing. When the current GOP Congress went home in mid-October, it left the public with a feeling that far less than usual had been achieved and that the GOP had no agenda except opportunism and rehashing the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

Bit by bit, Republicans had muted the political effectiveness of the scandal in three ways: first, by having so little else to talk about; second, by failing to present Clinton’s actions in the Lewinsky matter in a context of broader misconduct, a failure that left them looking like co-conspirators in a Kenneth W. Starr panty raid; and third, by taking cues, at least in the House of Representatives, from a leader, Gingrich, whose own ethics were officially reprimanded in early 1997.


The upshot? What should have been a powerful issue for the GOP became a political boomerang.

It is too early to say, categorically, that the Republicans, who botched Watergate a quarter century ago, have now shown themselves just as incompetent as pursuers. But it’s not too early to speculate about the consequences of the GOP fumbling its Clinton impeachment quest.

The two previous impeachment attempts, against Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Richard M. Nixon in 1974, were politically successful. True, the Senate acquitted Johnson by one vote in 1868, but the process dissipated his dwindling power. Failure to act against Clinton over the next two months, by contrast, would suggest that congressional Republicans were paper tigers and increase the likelihood that weak GOP performance in 1999-2000 would enable the Democrats to regain both the Senate and House.

The Republicans’ inability to orchestrate a successful impeachment of Clinton in the House could also put the party into a confrontation with one of its strongest constituencies, the religious right. It’s conventional wisdom in the media that the religious right is a political albatross, and that the Republican Party needs to move away from its divisive social-issue constituencies. This is partly true, but so is the reverse argument: The religious right has gotten so little from the Republican Party, mostly broken promises and betrayed causes, that it might be better off becoming nonpartisan or creating a third party for leverage purposes.

Bungling impeachment could bring this debate to a head. The religious right has become the public whipping boy for some of the GOP’s losses Tuesday, though party leaders were calling the strategic shots. More fumbles could lead to a break.

Pressure to replace Gingrich, whose personal vulnerabilities inhibited his strategy and whetted the public’s sense of GOP hypocrisy, became a firestorm less than 48 hours after the polls closed. But House Republicans have only themselves to blame for not replacing Gingrich after his reprimand, when polls showed that Americans wanted him dumped. The problem lay in a party talent pool so limited that there was no obvious replacement.

Some readers will already be thinking: What about GOP governors? There’s the talent to revitalize party fortunes.

Not likely. The presidency involves national issues and, in the GOP, that’s the context that produces presidential nominees. The last time the GOP nominated and elected a sitting governor was Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, not as recent a precedent as Texas Gov. George W. Bush would want.

Besides, the Democrats’ success in gaining five seats gives them the early edge for winning the presidency in 2000. It’s an important augury. The last two midterm elections that broke evenly or produced a net gain in Congress for the party that occupied the White House came in 1934 and 1962, and two years later, in 1936 and 1964, that same party went on to win landslide presidential victories.

There is an obvious caveat: The long business cycle that supported this year’s Democratic success is more than 90 months old, and crowding up against the length of the longest 20th-century economic up-cycles of 1961-1969 and 1983-1990. If the economic bubble bursts, and a major recession begins in 1999, Democratic prospects for the year 2000 would sour considerably.

On the other hand, it’s plausible to wonder if the Democrats might not be finally pushing through the “Clinton warp” of scandals that ruined party opportunities and gave the GOP an artificial boost. If so, Democrats in the United States could finally be about to share in the center-left trend so prominent now in almost all other leading industrial nations.

The Republicans, for their part, may be only another fumble or two away from the decimation of Britain’s Conservatives, out of power a year now, and the near-invisibility of the conservatives in Canada. What political and institutional embarrassments their autumn failures may unleash can only be guessed.*