Washington's era of 'attack' politics: growing or subsiding?

As congressional leaders visit the White House today, partisanship haseased, but that might not last long.

Later today, when President Clinton hosts congressional leaders at the White House for their first meeting since his impeachment acquittal, the greetings are likely to be no warmer than tepid.

Both sides hope that pictures of their handshaking will transmit a message of bipartisanship for the evening news. But underlying the gathering is an important post-impeachment question that no one in Washington has an answer for: Are elected officials truly willing to end the cycle of attack and revenge that has come to dominate the nation's political culture?

Maybe - and maybe not. At least the shouting will likely stop for a time. After the emotions released by the Lewinsky matter, everyone seems eager for a truce, if not a treaty.

"I just don't think it can get any more partisan," says Julian Epstein, House Judiciary Committee staff director for the Democrats, looking ahead at the potential for party wrangling in the aftermath of impeachment.

As a result, some experts think 1999 will mark the end of the use of ethics investigations and charges as a political tool.

"I'm hopeful for two reasons," says former White House counsel Lanny Davis, who has spent years defending the Clinton administration.

"The first is that we are going to eliminate the independent-counsel statute," he says. Independent counsels, in his view, have become a means to sometimes use the legal process to settle political differences.

The second, Mr. Davis says, is a change in the definition of what constitutes scandal and a greater unwillingness to use personal transgressions against individuals, as long as their missteps have no affect on their public duties.

"In a certain sense, we have had our final sex scandal," agrees Dick Morris, a former adviser to Mr. Clinton, who predicts personal scandal will no longer have political consequences. He adds, however, that "there are still [personal] areas that will be actionable, like failure to pay child support, or ongoing sexual harassment."

FURTHERMORE, national politicians are getting a loud antimudslinging message from the nation's governors, who have converged on Washington for their winter meeting this week. Their message to the president and Congress many Americans might consider a no-brainer: Get over it.

It's a message Washington says it hears.

"It's clear the Republicans want to move on," says Republican National Committee spokesman Cliff May.

Similarly, speaking to the nation's governors Sunday night, Clinton acknowledged the folly of retribution. "Washington works best when it works as governors work, across party lines; focusing on ideas, not ideology; on people, not politics; on unity, not division," he said.

But other experts expect a time of attack politics will return. The reason is simple - it works.

From then-backbencher Rep. Newt Gingrich's ethics charges against House Speaker Jim Wright, which eventually forced the Texas Democrat from office, to allegations of tax impropriety leveled against Mr. Gingrich himself, the tactics of attack have proved to be a way to at least preoccupy political opponents.

But if the past is prelude to the future, the current scandal lull may be short-lived.

"If you go back and look, the press and the public and politicians do take a break after a major scandal. We do get our fill," says Larry Sabado, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "But it doesn't take very long until we are ready to rev up again."

Both parties are responsible for the downward spiral in American political culture. It's a trend that has been accelerating for a decade and a half.

In 1987, Judge Robert Bork was denied a US Supreme Court seat following what his backers called an unfair attack on his judicial ideology.

Two years later, Speaker Wright was brought down by scandal. That same year, Sen. John Tower failed to win Senate approval as secretary of Defense following accusations of alcoholism and womanizing. Then in 1991, Clarence Thomas, President Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, faced what some described as a lynching over accusations of sexual harassment.

Since 1994, both parties have escalated the warfare, trading accusations and investigations like slugging prizefighters. The Clinton White House has faced more than half a dozen independent counsels that have probed the president and his Cabinet. Five are still active.

Former Rep. David Skaggs (D) of Colorado says some lawmakers and party officials see revenge as an entitlement of majority status. Its practitioners take into account the advantages of exercising this clout, weighed against the costs of bad publicity and possible future retaliation.

Mr. Skaggs, who sponsored a bipartisan retreat in 1997 for members of Congress and their families in an effort to create a more civil atmosphere, believes the appetite for continued payback is hard to predict."We really won't know until we have a change of power because it is only at that time that you are confronted with the opportunity to get even or to rise above it," he says.

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