Reversal of Misfortunes Cripples GOP Efforts to Impeach President

Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Who would have thought Newt Gingrich would lose his job before Bill Clinton did? To call it ironic is to slight the true reversal of fortune. Gingrich was not only Clinton’s rival, he was his shadow. Both were hyperarticulate, visionary and undisciplined. However imperfectly, Clinton embodied the baby boomers who embraced the cultural tumult of the 1960s; Gingrich embodied those who stood apart. Each man saw himself as the fulcrum of a new majority in American politics. Gingrich rose as Clinton fell, and vice versa.

In that way, Gingrich’s demise underscored with unambiguous clarity the most important message of last week’s election. Barring some jaw-dropping (and incontrovertibly proven) new allegation, you can now put a sheet on the effort to force President Clinton from office. Impeachment is a dead man walking.

Clinton is surviving and Gingrich is departing largely because the president understands something the speaker (and, even more so, his GOP critics) do not: In the 1990s, ideological overreaching guarantees electoral disaster. The country today is so closely divided between the parties that when either side pursues an overly partisan agenda--one aimed primarily at its own core supporters--it gets whacked at the polls. Only by producing an agenda balanced enough to attract bipartisan support in Washington can either side sustain majority support in the country.

Consider the history. In Clinton’s first two years, he crafted an agenda (particularly on the budget and health care) that appealed almost only to Democrats. That let Gingrich polarize the country against Clinton and lead the GOP to its landslide victory in 1994.

Then Gingrich immediately replicated Clinton’s mistake, designing a conservative wish-list budget plan in 1995 that provoked virtually unified Democratic opposition. That allowed Clinton to recapture the center of the electorate and storm back to reelection. Early in 1997, both parties interpreted the split 1996 result (which also left the GOP in control of Congress) as a mandate to work together; that spirit produced last year’s popular balanced budget deal. But when that agreement enraged conservatives, the GOP moved to pacify its base by systematically blocking Clinton’s proposals. Then Monica S. Lewinsky arrived.


Believing Clinton fatally wounded, Republicans in Congress this year casually shelved his ideas on managed health care, teen smoking and education. At the same time, with Gingrich at the lead, they targeted their own proposals toward their conservative base and advanced an impeachment inquiry that attracted only minimal Democratic support.

That agenda of stalemate and investigation proved as self-destructive as Clinton’s 1994 health care plan and Gingrich’s 1995 budget plan. Congress’ approval rating skidded through this fall (revived only temporarily by a chaotic last-minute budget deal with Clinton), and the voters last Tuesday gave the GOP the cold slap of repudiation that doomed the speaker and reprieved the president.

After the election, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) insisted it was business as usual for the impeachment process. Generals in the German High Command probably said the same thing after D-Day. But the reality is that the effort to remove Clinton is like a car that’s been rusting in a ditch for a month. Weeds are growing through the engine. Starting it again will be difficult and restoring any serious momentum, almost impossible. Conservative Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) says flatly: “After the election, I don’t think they are within shouting distance” of the 218 votes needed to impeach the president.

The election results poked three distinct holes in the impeachment balloon. One was to undermine the notion that while the public at large might not like the idea, people who actually vote--the people politicians care most about--were more sympathetic. But 63% of those voting opposed impeachment, according to exit polls.

Secondly, the results punctured the GOP’s hopes of attracting meaningful Democratic support in the House. If Republicans had defeated some Southern Democrats by tying them to Clinton, the remainder might have been more inclined to vote for impeachment. But the Southern Democrats who faced attack ads on the scandal all won easily. House leadership aides now expect no more than 10, and perhaps fewer than five, Democrats to support impeachment.

Finally, the election is likely to unnerve the 30 House Republicans who represent districts where Clinton carried a majority of the vote in 1996, and the other 61 in districts where he carried a plurality. Of the 11 Republican seats Democrats captured Tuesday, eight were in districts that voted for Clinton in 1996. Of the five Republican incumbents defeated, four represented districts Clinton carried. None of that is likely to be lost on the survivors.

Even if the GOP leaders could somehow crack the whip hard enough to force impeachment through the chaos in the House, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott now has as much chance of walking from Biloxi to Paris as he does of attracting the 12 Democratic votes he’d need in the Senate for a two-thirds majority to remove Clinton. After watching New York’s indomitable Alfonse M. D’Amato fall to anti-impeachment Democrat Charles E. Schumer, Lott might have trouble holding enough Northern Republicans for a simple majority.

Maybe special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr will prove such a compelling Judiciary Committee witness next week that he’ll stampede the country and Congress against the president. And maybe buffalo will stampede down Fifth Avenue the day after. After 10 months of remarkably consistent poll results, perhaps it’s time to consider the notion that Americans have already reached a settled judgment: They don’t like what Clinton did with Lewinsky, they don’t think much of his moral compass, but they see in him other qualities (effectiveness, tenacity, empathy) that they admire, and they don’t believe his offenses justify his removal from office. Republicans can still try to ignore that judgment, but only if they’re also willing to ignore all the painful political lessons of the past six years--the lessons Gingrich will now have plenty of time to contemplate.