Impeachment fails to boost movement for resignation

Polls this weekend show most Americans - so far - still want Clinton to finish term.

Richard Nixon stood very alone in his bathing trunks, knee-deep in the Pacific Ocean when he learned a House committee had impeached him.

Bereft of party support, he resigned well before the full House considered charges against him, much less before a Senate trial could take place.

But this time, as America deliberates the future of its 42nd president, a determined Bill Clinton shows no sign of voluntarily stepping down. Indeed, he is stepping up preparations to fight for his political life in the Senate.

Clinton's strengths are numerous. For one, Mr. Clinton is enveloped in support of House Democrats. And perhaps more important, public opinion has not significantly shifted to the view that he should resign.

Pollsters suggest that Clinton will only be in trouble if polls show that at least 50 percent of Americans favor resignation. But in polls taken over the weekend, the results were, at best, murky. While one found little change in how Americans feel about the issue, another said that the number of people who wanted Clinton to resign was shrinking. Meanwhile, a third found the nation almost evenly split.

Lacking a clear outcry for the president's resignation, many members of the GOP are out to change Americans' opinions. On Sunday, House Republicans and party strategists took to the morning talk shows, demanding that Clinton step down.

Their bid to unseat the president has major obstacles, including Clinton's dizzying 72 percent approval rating in NBC's weekend poll. Nevertheless, White House strategists are aware of the danger that "scandal fatigue" poses in eroding public patience and Democratic solidarity. So they are focused on working quietly to forge a compromise with Senate leadership to bring a swift conclusion and avoid a trial.

"The issue is time," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International in Utica, N.Y. "The longer this drags on, more and more people are saying the only way to get rid of the issue is to get rid of the president."

Already, Hill Republicans increased their pressure on Clinton to leave voluntarily following Rep. Robert Livingston's announcement that he would not seek the Speakership next term. Representative Livingston had showed honor and a love for the greater good when issues of infidelity from his past surfaced, complicating his future role as Speaker.

"[Livingston] made an honorable decision ... it's a decision others ought to think about," says House majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas.

FOR its part, the White House publicly urged Livingston not to step down while emphasizing its resolve to resist resignation calls. The president "is going to keep pushing his agenda forward and I think that it would be wrong to give in to the insidious politics of personal destruction," said spokesman Joe Lockhart.

House Democrats agreed. "You cannot, you must not, you cannot, you must not, you cannot, you must not resign," urged House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

In addition, more than 80 House Democrats motor pooled down Pennsylvania Avenue within hours of the weekend impeachment vote to surround the president in a show of support.

More important, behind the scenes, the White House insists party support remains strong. "No one has asked the president to resign," said Gregory Craig, special counsel to the president.

In addition, the White House is talking with former US Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, a respected moderate Democrat most recently engaged in the Northern Ireland peace talks. Mr. Mitchell would discuss with the GOP alternatives to a trial, such as censure and a stiff fine, emphasizing the benefits of settling the matter quickly once the Senate takes it up in early January.

Up to now, the White House and Democratic activists argued against impeachment, suggesting the agony of a Senate trial would traumatize the country and potentially freeze its positive economic direction.

With impeachment a reality, a role reversal is under way. Many Republicans are using the same argument as cause for the president to step down.

And as the White House keeps a close eye on any slippage in the polls, there may be comfort in other contrasts to the Nixon era.

"Compared to 1974, there is not the sense of awe about the president being impeached," says Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. "Presidents are less central than they used to be - politics has been trivialized."

A Fox poll taken over the weekend asked: "If Clinton leaves office would it affect your day-to-day life?" Some 66 percent responded no, 28 percent said yes.

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