Political Riptides

Kevin Phillips, the 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."

The impeachment of the president is starting to look like an incoming tide, as even Democratic House members are signing up and alternatives, such as censure, are losing constitutional and political credibility.

Yet, the impeachment proceedings may not be as much a grand constitutional battlefield as a political and moral minefield. Three Republican House members already have been outed for adultery or fathering illegitimate children, and Democrats are worrying about pre-election TV ads labeling them defenders of President Bill Clinton's immorality.

Plus, we have a trio of new lawyer jokes: Robert S. Bennett, the Clinton counselor who failed to settle with Paula Corbin Jones; David E. Kendall, whose continuing insistence that the president told the truth to the people and the grand jury is funnier than Jay Leno, and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, whose preoccupation with Monica S. Lewinsky seems to be wrapping the impeachment case in thong underwear rather than broader issues.

The November elections already are shaping up as a referendum on impeachment and vital signals as to which direction the expected November and December hearings should take. If the GOP increases its House majority by 15-20 seats after being worried about losing its control, those gains could be seen as an endorsement of impeachment. But if the Democrats recapture the House, it would be read as a strong dissent: Let Clinton off with a wink and a reprimand.

But this is a minefield, not a battlefield, a great and grand minefield in a perverse sort of way.

This White House is no ordinary administration, not just slightly soiled on the edges. Never before have a single president's scandals played a major role in four consecutive national elections: 1992 (Gennifer Flowers and the Arkansas draft board); 1994 (Troopergate, Whitewater and the Vincent W. Foster Jr. suicide enigma); 1996 (Jones, the FBI files and illegal Asian political contributions); and 1998 (Lewinsky, the Asian money, the groping of Kathleen E. Willey and who knows what else). Clinton has had about as many flavors of scandal in his tenure as Baskin-Robbins ice cream.

The Republican predicament, coming off this extraordinary electoral sequence, is that much of what enabled them to get control of Congress and keep it can be described in one word: scandal. Without Clinton's ethics, the Republicans wouldn't have won Congress in 1994, and without the Asian contributions scandal, they probably wouldn't have kept the House in 1996. Right now, the GOP looks like it will not only keep control in November but enlarge it--on Lewinsky coattails, so to speak.

But there is also a caution for the GOP. After six years of Clinton scandal-milking, the Republicans stand to rise or fall based on their handling of these themes that they've emphasized for so long. Starr has presented them with an 11-part impeachment case based on just one particular mess, and apparently the independent counsel's other inquiries--Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate--are also about to result in official reports. Then there's the likelihood that the guarded room of supporting material that Starr sent to Congress with the Lewinsky report has more firecrackers and cherry bombs. All this brings us back to the minefield.

If the Republicans in the House of Representatives don't have the guts or ability to turn Starr's material into a successful investigation, it calls into question the political integrity of what they've been saying for six years. Many Republicans in Congress would like to leave Clinton in power as a weakened incumbent, but they can't. Rank-and-file Republicans would be furious if the GOP leadership abandoned six years of rhetoric to merely censure or reprimand Clinton.

Conservative activists remember when Democrats got their chance to skewer President Richard M. Nixon in 1973, they happily put their impeachment bayonets where their political mouths had been. In spring of 1973, few American favored impeaching Nixon because of Watergate. But after a year of congressional hearings and courtroom trials, the impeachment numbers were up to 40% in June 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee began its final impeachment deliberations.

Republicans could face the same challenge in the the next few months if they decide to begin impeachment hearings later this year or in January. With support for impeachment only in the 27% range, according to the Gallup poll, they'll need to mount bold hearings with pivotal witnesses from across the whole range of identified scandals and allegations. They'll also need the help of a few trials, perhaps even one in which Clinton is identified as unindicted co-conspirator. Should the GOP fail to act, however, the same social-issue, moral-issue and pro-family Republicans who've been threatening to bolt the party could find this fumbling the last straw.

Democrats have their own problems. Because this is the fourth national election in which scandal has appeared as a sly November reaper riding at Clinton's elbow, few believe that Lewinsky is a containable problem. They're waiting for the next tampered witness, the next bimbo, the next illegal campaign donation, the next commodity straddle or Arkansas real-estate deal. "The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton" is no longer just a fanciful book title.

The second bit of bad news for the Democrats is that censure, talked of for a while as a convenient compromise, seems to be fading as House members and legal experts have begun discussing its lack of constitutional status or credibility as a way to discipline a president. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, a leading constitutional analyst, puts the case bluntly: "Censure of a president . . . lacks a constitutional basis." Impeachment is the remedy spelled out in the Constitution, and that's what Congress is now talking about.

As well they should, since impeachment doesn't necessarily involve grand constitutional issues. Because the president is also the chief law-enforcement officer of the United States, behavior that undercuts law enforcement is impeachable. The articles against Nixon in 1974 were for obstructing justice by delaying an investigation, misleading a federal inquiry, disobeying subpoenas and abusing presidential powers.

Sexual misbehavior itself may be impeachable. In England, Chief Justice Scruggs was impeached in 1680 for his "frequent and notorious excesses and debaucheries" that brought "the highest scandal on the justice of the kingdom." Several U.S. federal and state judges in this century also have been impeached because of sexcapades. The essential criterion--bringing his office into disrepute--may well apply to Clinton.

The need to consider impeachment seems particularly strong when a besmirched president is in the middle of his second term, cannot face voters again and may be fatally crippled not just by misbehavior but by loss of national and international credibility. Even some allies believe Clinton may be sliding into this category. Finally, there is the growing concern about the president's psychological state. His former labor secretary, Robert B. Reich, has worried publicly about Clinton's self-destructiveness in pursuing his affair with Lewinsky during the 1996 election year, when its disclosure might have led to his defeat.

The sad truth, as Nixon proved in 1974, is that once a president in the middle of his term has been subjected to such hearings, and then has seen the House vote impeachment, no recovery is possible. Effective functioning as president for another two years is impossible, even if a two-thirds Senate vote to convict can be avoided. Resignation is the only honorable solution, though Clinton does not yet have to face that reality.

In an era of better leaders, higher moral standards and strong political parties, the president's failings might have been dealt with earlier and with more probity. Then again, if we had better leaders, higher moral standards and stronger, worthier political parties, Clinton wouldn't be president.

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