Grappling with life after impeachment

History books may show House vote as a mix of presidential missteps and a resurgent morality.

The political equivalent of a nuclear bomb has been detonated in Washington.

Defying conventional wisdom, the House of Representatives has impeached President Clinton, along almost strict party lines and in the face of strong public support for his presidency.

The collateral damage has been immense. Not only has

Mr. Clinton's presidency been severely wounded - even if he manages to serve out his term - but the Republican Party has seen high casualties in the loss of two Speakers and public credibility.

Even the punditry is feeling chastened. After so many false steps, no one dares predict how Clinton will fare in the Senate, where he faces trial on the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice approved Saturday by the House.

Perhaps this president - only the second in US history to be impeached - can cut a deal and avoid a trial altogether. Or perhaps Republican senators will feel obligated to hold a trial, but one that is swift and perfunctory, with the knowledge that reaching the two-thirds majority needed for conviction would be a monumental stretch in a Senate with a 55-to-45 Republican edge. Or maybe, as some polls have shown, the public will now be so disheartened that a drumbeat for Clinton's resignation could grow to deafening levels.

Would Bill Clinton, the ultimate bionic politician who once dubbed himself the Comeback Kid, actually resign? He rules it out, but no smart observer should.

How has the nation come to this extraordinary point? Historians and political analysts see a convergence of factors, ranging from sheer political stupidity to the culmination of 30 years of cultural battle over the nation's moral direction.

Clinton's missteps

At heart lie the actions of the president himself. Few can understand why he thought he could engage in a reckless affair with an intern when he knew he was under investigation for the Paula Jones sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Clinton then compounded his trouble by lying, and by failing to give moderate Republicans - almost desperate to avoid the risks of voting for impeachment - anything to hold onto.

"His ineptitude as a politician was mindboggling," says historian Robert Dallek. "What president would get himself into this kind of bind? After the November elections, he should have gone to the moderate Republicans and reached out."

Clinton has also been swept into the long and steep decline of the imperial presidency. For much of this century, the public, Congress, and both major political parties have looked to a strong president to see the nation through a series of crises - two world wars, the Depression, the cold war. For the presidents themselves, much was overlooked, and usually went unreported by a press that played along.

That consensus began to unravel with the Vietnam War, followed by Watergate, the advent of independent counsels, Iran-contra, and the end of the cold war. For the first time since Franklin Roosevelt held the Oval Office, the nation elected a president who had not served in the military.

Now, the president has become so dispensable, in the eyes of his opponents, that he can be eaten alive. The opposition by some top Republicans to the US bombing of Iraq - a stunning departure from the usual bipartisanship that accompanies military operations - underscored this new reality.

A third factor that has engulfed Clinton is the new partisanship that has made moderates an endangered species. The two impeachment articles that passed in the House went largely along party lines: 228 to 206 on the perjury charge and 221 to 212 on the obstruction charge.

Around the country, congressional districts have been drawn with a precision that ensures more uniformity in views, both liberal and conservative. Steadily declining voter turnout has enhanced the power of the parties' edges.

The growing influence of the religious right, marked by a desire to "take back the culture" from moral equivocators like Clinton, has fueled the rise in partisanship.

But "don't overestimate the influence of the Christian right" in the Clinton fiasco, warns John Green, a political analyst at the University of Akron in Ohio. "They're certainly very influential, but other conservatives - the gun people, the antitax people, the term-limits people - also want to get [Clinton out] or at least mess him up real bad."

On a visit to the Capitol last Friday, Professor Green was struck by the sheer hatred many conservatives express toward Clinton. They appear so blinded by emotion, he says, that it almost seems not to matter that they could be killing their own party's fragile consensus in the process.

GOP's perils

The Republican Party, says Bert Rockman, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, is "committing suicide." The partisan impeachment of Clinton, defying public sentiment, may well cost the GOP control of Congress in the next election, he says. Moderates will be the most vulnerable.

After the November vote, which narrowed the Republican majority to only six votes in a 435-seat House, it won't take many seats to change hands in 2000 for the Democrats to take over.

"I would not want to be a member of a Republican minority in a post-impeachment House," Mr. Rockman observes.

But by 2001, one thing is certain: Clinton will be gone, and another new Congress will be seated. Perhaps by then, emotions will have cooled and the nation can take some lessons from this end-of-century turmoil that, for only the second time in history, impeached the president of the United States.

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