Two views of US political future

Will investigations and 'Scandal Channel' proliferate, or will culture of attack subside and issues predominate?

At this extraordinary time in America - coming off a war with Iraq and with itself over the president's future - a weary nation stands at a crossroads and sees two futures.

In one, efforts to impeach the president are increasingly commonplace. At any given time, there are so many special prosecutors investigating senior government officials that a new building opens just to house them all. Wall-to-wall media coverage of alleged political miscreancy gives birth to a 24-hour Scandal Channel on cable TV.

In another, the two parties put away their knives and decide the politics of scandal is spent. Voters, it turns out, are just as likely to support the politician under attack as they are the party that's attacking. Alarmed by declining voter turnout, the parties embrace political issues with renewed fervor.

These scenarios aren't just political science fiction. They represent two stylized versions of Washington's future, analysts say. And it is that sense of the unknown that has citizens on edge.

As the first presidential impeachment in 130 years sinks into the national psyche, a crisis of confidence is at hand over the health of American democracy.

It is possible, some analysts assert, that our political system is taking an irrevocable step toward becoming more like the parliamentary governments of much of the world, where a partisan vote of no confidence can send the top executive packing. Even if President Clinton manages to finish out his time in office, the certainty of four-year terms somehow feels a little less certain now.

But for many of Washington's longtime observers, a feeling of "this too shall pass" is settling in. The crisis of Clinton's presidency is not a threat to the republic - rather, it is the logical result of an era in American politics marked by increasing partisanship, tit-for-tat-ism, and, at its heart, a war over the culture.

Product of his times?

If Watergate was the final domestic battle of the Vietnam War, then Mr. Clinton's impeachment is the final effort to kill the 1960s, some have observed. In that view, Clinton's problems with candor and a free-wheeling personal life place him more as a product of his times than as an unusually flawed example of a human being. The attempt to take him down then, represents an effort to reclaim the values that many believe America should aspire to.

Such a grasp for higher standards - mixed with a heavy dose of partisan venom toward a man who had appeared politically invincible throughout most of his career - is taking place within the structure put in place by the Founding Fathers.

Cause for impeachment, a stream of experts have made clear, is whatever the majority of the House at any given time says it is. So even though this impeachment falls almost perfectly along partisan lines, that doesn't mean the system is broken.

Impeachment, after all, does not remove Clinton from office. It just sends him off to the Senate for a trial. As of now, the conventional wisdom is that the Senate won't convict him (although, many have noted, the longer the impeachment process goes on, the greater the risk to Clinton that anything could happen).

Historian Leo Ribuffo of George Washington University scoffs at the notion that America's democracy could be in danger. "C'mon, walk down the street," he admonishes. "Does our democracy look in trouble?"

During any major event, Mr. Ribuffo says, there's a convention of journalism that says, "We're at the greatest crisis since the Civil War." But the fact is, he adds, "we're at the greatest crisis since the day before yesterday.... Mark my words, when this is over the pundits will be writing, 'See, the system worked."

Perhaps the greater danger is in what ultimately could be born of this history-making vote. If a Republican is elected president in 2000, the investigations could begin the next day.

"Given the historical context, why would we not think that could happen?" asks independent pollster John Zogby. "It also suggests that those who seek public office have to be a bit smarter than this current crowd."

Tom Korologos, a longtime Republican lobbyist, isn't troubled by the prospect of more frequent impeachment efforts in the future, if warranted. If some future president decides to lie before a grand jury, he or she should face the same fate as Clinton, he says.

But he predicts the next president will be the "opposite" of Clinton - a "family-values, holier-than-thou, clean-cut kid, be it Republican or Democrat."

Before voters choose the next president though, the scandal-mongering atmosphere of Washington could get worse. Mr. Zogby, the pollster, repeats a line he uses often in speeches: "Just when you think you've hit rock bottom, somebody is standing there with a jackhammer."

The guy holding the jackhammer, he says, may be Larry Flynt. No publication date has been set, but the publisher of Hustler magazine is planning to report results of his million-dollar offer for information on congressional sex stories. "There will be a story," says an editorial assistant of Mr. Flynt's. A recent revelation about the sexual past of Rep. Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana has been linked to Hustler.

Some lawmakers can't wait for the current independent-counsel law to expire next spring, giving them an opportunity to rethink the way in which special prosecutors like Kenneth Starr operate. But no one believes a revamped independent-counsel law - or no law at all - will remove such prosecutors altogether.

Past counsel appointments

When no such law has been on the books, the US attorney general has simply appointed an investigator. And if Congress tries to amend the law by raising the standard for appointing a prosecutor, members could face the argument that future presidents should be held to the same standard that Clinton was.

Shaking Washington - and American politics - out of its permanent scandal machine will be tougher than it seems. Not only does the role of the independent counsel, in some form, appear to be a permanent fixture in American life. So too, does the ever-growing collection of 24-hour news channels, Web sites, tabloid press, and mainstream press that increasingly traffic in dirt and live to get the word out first.

Will the public respond to this latest episode of "Washington is Burning" by tuning out even more and voting even less?

Curtis Gans, an expert on voters and a Washington fixture since the early 1960s, doesn't see the Clinton impeachment diminishing voter interest any more from where it was in November, when turnout hit a 40-year low.

"Actually, at this very juncture, interest in things has probably heightened from where it was in November, and in a way that's not unhealthy," says Mr. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

Public focus on the meaning of the Constitution and grounds for impeachment is at its highest point since the Lewinsky scandal started, polls show. A long trial in the Senate would not be a pretty spectacle for the American people, says Gans. But if the nation winds up with a new president, either through Clinton's resignation or a conviction in the Senate, the new president will be a unifying figure, he believes. A new beginning would be at hand.

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