Impeachment's big impact? The 2000 election

One year later, scandal casts long shadow on tone of presidential race,

One year after the first presidential impeachment in 130 years, Bill Clinton has avoided becoming the immobilized president many had predicted.

In many ways he has managed to govern effectively - waging a mini-war in Kosovo, thwarting a Republican tax-cut plan, triumphing in several budget battles.

Even so, there are signs of trouble with voters. On the election trail, both Mr. Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, and the president's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, have run into stiff resistance to their campaigns for the White House and the Senate, respectively.

The lengthy impeachment battle fueled partisan acrimony on Capitol Hill, and thwarted compromises on several major issues, like Social Security. But ultimately, the major impact of the impeachment will likely be on Election 2000.

The sordidness surrounding the scandal has prompted voters to put a premium on character and veracity. The new mantra for the presidential race might be: "Anyone but Bill." Or, "Anyone but Bill and his team."

"Politically and legislatively, I don't think impeachment's had a major impact on the year," says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the Heritage Foundation here. "I do believe it's had a profound effect on the presidential race."

"The emergence of [John] McCain and [Bill] Bradley is a very direct response to those events which led up to impeachment" adds Mr. Wittmann. "The only way I can explain that an incumbent vice president who enjoys unprecedented peace and prosperity has to fight for his political life is Clinton's behavior in the Oval Office."

Candidates McCain and Bradley, perhaps along with George W. Bush, who promises to bring "honor and dignity" to the Oval Office, are viewed as the "anti-Clinton," much the same way that Jimmy Carter - who promised to never lie to the American people - was viewed as the "anti-Nixon."

Indeed, according to public opinion polls, Americans care more about a president with high morals than they do about his stance on issues. A November poll by USA Today shows 80 percent of Americans say it's very important that a president have "good moral character," while 51 percent say it's very important that he "generally agrees with me on the issues I care about."

It's too soon to tell whether character will become the dominant issue in next year's race, but so far, it ranks high, and represents a significant shift compared with other elections. Think back to 1992, for instance, when Americans overlooked the moral failings of "slick Willie" because they cared more about addressing the issue of the day: the economy.

But in the presence of a historically strong economy and a nation at peace, there is no overriding issue and so integrity jumps up the list of voter priorities, says Robert Dallek, presidential historian and author of "Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents."

Impeachment and all the unseemliness of the Monica Lewinsky affair "heighten the impulse of [the public] to focus on presidential character," he says.

Mr. Dallek agrees with the assessment that impeachment's imprint left less of a mark on the past year than it's likely to leave on the one ahead. He and other analysts describe the all-consuming scandal as having a "residual effect" - simply worsening an already partisan atmosphere in Washington.

One could observe this, for instance, in Congress's rejection of the president's wished-for Nuclear Test Ban Treaty - a vote it could have delayed, but chose to have anyway, almost as an in-your-face gesture, says Thomas Mann, political analyst at the Brookings Institution here.

And of course, the president got none of his big-ticket wish-list items: Social Security reform, a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, gun control, a patients' bill of rights.

An analysis by Congressional Quarterly shows that the president won only 38 percent of the congressional votes on which he took a clear position. That's lower than the seventh-year performance of both Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower.

But it wasn't the worst year for Clinton. That was 1995, after the "Republican revolution" in Congress. This year, using the veto threat, the president won several budget coups: funding for his 100,000 teachers and 50,000 police officers. He signed on to major overhaul of the financial services industry. By using his executive order authority, he is setting aside at least 40 million acres of National Forest lands for protection.

"The political atmosphere in Washington was as bitterly partisan as anyone could remember, but we still managed to get a lot done," says Bruce Reed, domestic policy advisor to the president.

Impeachment had almost no impact on foreign affairs, except perhaps to spur Clinton on in his mini-war in Yugoslavia, say foreign policy experts. The president was still able to move the Mideast peace process forward and negotiate China's pending entry to the World Trade Organization.

Whatever foreign failures he had - the WTO blowup in Seattle or American helplessness in Russia - have more to do with external factors or policy shortcomings than with impeachment.

In fact, for a year that began so ominously for the president, and for Washington politics, it almost feels like just another year in the Clinton administration. Says Dallek of impeachment: "It's so faded from view, hasn't it?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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