WASHINGTON — With a Senate vote to acquit President Clinton, a crushing weight will be lifted from the American political system. But after 13 months under the boulder of the impeachment threat, can this system spring back?
The scandal that first came to light as an Internet rumor and that ended in the second presidential impeachment trial in 131 years has taken longer to conclude than the historic unification of Germany. During the long ordeal, no institution has emerged unscathed - not the president, Congress, the legal branch, or the media.
The American public, meanwhile, is more cynical, more detached than ever. Elections last November, for instance, saw the lowest voter turnout in more than 50 years, with only 36 percent of eligible voters showing up at the polls.
It's precisely because this year has been so politically destructive, however, that some foresee a degree of respectability - or at least legislative responsibility - returning to American politics.
If Mr. Clinton and the new House Speaker can be taken at their word, the two institutions at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue may now strive for a period of relative dtente - for a while, anyway. And, say political analysts, with the independent-counsel law unlikely to survive in its present form, the culture of investigative politics will abate.
Moreover, they say, Americans should expect more Jesse Venturas, as mavericks inside and outside the established parties run against the mess in Washington, acting as a reality check for the dominant political sensibilities.
"There's a desperation on the part of the significant players to turn to something else, to get beyond this," says Thomas Mann, a government analyst at the Brookings Institution here. "That very desperation may help us overcome the damage that has resulted."
Others argue, of course, that the full impact of impeachment won't be known until payback time: the 2000 elections. Still others have fretted that, after this episode, impeachment would become a conventional weapon in the "politics of personal destruction," as the president called it.
But presidential scholar Martha Joynt Kumar detects no desire from any quarter to repeat this year's annus horribilis.
"I think everybody's a no-repeater on this one," says Ms. Kumar, who's based in Washington. "The fear is that this is going to be copied. But who's gained out of it? Absolutely everyone lost."
The history of no-gain is what's behind House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Clinton saying they want to work with each other. The Republicans, so the reasoning goes, don't want to be known only as the party of impeachment. The president, of course, wants to dilute the stain of impeachment with some kind of legacy.
Still, the 2000 election looms - and that could undermine any desire to kiss and make up. Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R) of Arkansas, one of the House managers who helped lay out the case against Clinton in the Senate trial, said in an interview that any partisanship will be mostly due to electioneering - not to impeachment.
"People make the argument [impeachment] will poison the well for this entire Congress. I think the impact will be minimal in that regard," he says. Rather, "the tendency toward partisanship will be much greater because of the slim [Republican] majority and the thirst for winning the speakership by the Democrats."
But in House races in 2000, count on both parties to make impeachment an issue, says a senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign committee. "People will be called to account for their vote," he says, "and it could cost the Republicans the House."
The presidential candidates, however, will likely hold impeachment at arm's length, preferring to stay focused on the issues, the adviser says.
That's not to say the media and conservative groups won't delve into the personal lives of prospective candidates - and make an issue of what they find. Already, several would-be candidates have fielded questions from the purity test.
In a CNN interview Feb. 2, for instance, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who has formed a presidential exploratory committee, was asked about an affair he once had. The senator acknowledged he was "responsible" for the breakup of his first marriage, but then said he "will not discuss or talk about that any more than that."
Oval Office looks smaller
If history is any guide, the next occupant of the Oval Office may find the shadow of impeachment still hangs over the presidency. After President Andrew Johnson's close shave in his 1868 Senate impeachment trial, the presidency went into a kind of deep freeze - though other factors contributed to that, as well.
Certainly, say political analysts and historians, the office has been diminished somewhat, being viewed a little less reverently, with less emphasis on its role-model function. And, as a result of the Clinton legal wars, it's now been restricted somewhat, being subject to civil lawsuits and losing some of its rights to secrecy.
But overall, these analysts describe the American political system as resilient, with room still left for great leadership in the presidency.
"Future presidents may be a little cautious, but they're not going to be scared to make any moves at all," says John Kessel, professor emeritus of political science at The Ohio State University in Columbus.
Of course, some analysts have grave doubts that American politics can shake the pattern of searing partisanship and investigation. One, Leon Panetta, a former congressman and ex-chief of staff to Clinton, says politicians on both sides of the aisle "will remember the trauma."
He describes the past year as "World War I trench warfare," and says it will be hard to change course because "it's the only way people know how to work politically day to day."
The sad outcome of all of this, Mr. Panetta says, is further estrangement of the American public.
His California colleague Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D), who serves on the polarized House Judiciary Committee, is not so sure the criminalization of politics will subside, even if lawmakers fail to renew the independent-counsel statute.
Congress, which has proved itself to be a nonstop investigator, is still active, as is the scandal-loving media. Says Representative Lofgren: "The gotcha nature can flourish without the independent-counsel statute."