Once Rolling, Impeachment Train Could Take Parties on Mystery Tour

Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Not many of them are yet willing to say so publicly. But there's a growing fear among Republican political strategists that the party will not be able to force President Clinton from office, and may ultimately face a backlash if it tries to remove him over public resistance. And that puts the GOP in a bind, because demand for decisive action against the president is steadily rising from its core supporters. "In some ways," says Republican consultant Ralph Reed, "it is a tougher situation for the GOP than for Clinton."

Although congressional Republican leaders are publicly taking a hard line against compromise, and the House is likely to approve a formal impeachment inquiry next month, some of the sharpest thinkers in the GOP believe the odds are rising that Clinton will serve out his term--albeit in a depleted state. Since many Democratic insiders still fear the worst for Clinton, this GOP pessimism may only reflect the tendency of political strategists to believe their own side has been dealt the weakest hand. But there's more to it: a sober awareness of how difficult it is to remove a president without a public consensus to do so.

Consider Reed's analysis: "Historically, impeachment and conviction . . . only succeed if the party holding the White House decides that their president is such a liability that he must go. That will not happen unless there is a greater implosion in public opinion than there is today."

Or this assessment from another prominent conservative thinker close to the House leadership: "After November, they [the Republican majority] are going to have to devise an exit strategy. At this point, it is very difficult to imagine a scenario where he is removed from office given the evidence that has been presented so far, and No. 2, the fact that the American people don't want it."

Or, finally, this straightforward conclusion from Tony Fabrizio, Bob Dole's pollster in 1996: "I don't think they can remove him if the numbers don't change . . . and there may be a backlash if you push it too far."

None of this means that Clinton is in for an easy time over the coming months. Many Republicans believe the House will, in fact, eventually approve articles of impeachment--although with the awareness that the Senate is unlikely to convict Clinton. In that scenario, while Clinton survives, impeachment itself becomes a particularly emphatic form of censure. "There are people who want Clinton to have a permanent mark of shame, because it is the only way they believe that lessons will be learned by the next generation," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz.

Since the legal case itself isn't open and shut, and public opinion now seems unlikely to change much, three other factors may prove pivotal in determining whether the House eventually votes for impeachment.

One is whether new facts emerge. Many House Republicans still hope that the press will produce new revelations on Clinton's sex life or independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr will deliver them additional ammunition on Whitewater and other controversies--although many other Republicans consider that the political equivalent of praying for rain.

The second key event will be the election. If Republicans make sweeping breakthroughs, the impeachment drive will intensify. But an inconclusive election could sap its momentum.

The third is how Democrats react. Republicans will be much more comfortable voting to impeach Clinton if they have the cover of substantial Democratic support. But, over the last week, the current has moved in the other direction, with even some critical Democrats such as Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey questioning whether the existing evidence justifies impeachment.

Indeed, some Republican strategists feel the overall current has shifted toward Clinton. In particular, the Judiciary Committee's decision to release the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony is now widely viewed inside the GOP as a double disaster.

First, the decision itself inflamed suspicions that Republicans are more interested in wounding Clinton than unearthing the truth. Then the tape portrayed Clinton in a surprisingly sympathetic light. While Clinton's approval rating jumped, disapproval of the Republican congressional leadership spiked to the highest level this year in a Pew Research Center survey last week. "There's a lot in those polling results that concern me," Reed says.

Most worrisome for Republican strategists, of course, are the polling results on the central questions. Despite sharp drops in Clinton's personal standing, polls late last week showed as many as two-thirds of Americans approving of his performance in office, and similar majorities continuing to oppose resignation or impeachment. That seeming public consensus, in fact, masks a critical division: While large majorities of Democrats and independents oppose impeachment, more than 55% of Republicans now support it, according to the latest Gallup Poll.

In the short run, that polarization rules out any compromise punishment, such as censure and a fine. But if those numbers hold, over time they will exert increasing pressure for a resolution that keeps Clinton in office.

Most GOP professionals believe that before the election, Republicans can't even consider alternatives to impeachment. They fear that if Republicans settle for censure, conservative voters may register their disappointment by staying home in November.

But after the election, as the parties turn their focus toward the next presidential campaign, the dynamic will shift. At that point, if public opinion hasn't changed, Republicans may grow increasingly concerned that trying to remove the president--especially without many Democratic votes--will alienate swing voters and hurt the party in 2000.

These strategists say that's when Republicans--especially Senate Republicans leery of beginning an impeachment trial they don't have the votes to win--may start looking for a way out. "It has to be turned off," says one top GOP thinker, "it just can't be turned off until after Nov. 3." Once the train toward impeachment starts rolling, however, turning it off won't be easy, or painless. The battle ahead may be beyond the ability of either party to entirely control--and damage both sides in ways that neither party can entirely predict.

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