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ANALYSIS
In Toeing Hard Line, GOP Could Stumble

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 28, 1999; Page A1

    Senate Republicans find themselves in an excruciating position, torn between the judgment of the majority of the American people and the passions of their most conservative loyalists.

    A year and six days after the Monica S. Lewinsky story broke, President Clinton got an official reprieve yesterday, despite condemnations of his conduct. Although the Senate refused to dismiss the case against the president, not even the most vehement Clinton opponent believes 11 Democratic votes for conviction will materialize in the coming days.

    But in the face of that reality, Republicans unanimously decided yesterday to press forward with depositions from three witnesses – even though a number of GOP senators had registered reservations about that course within the last few days. Why did they feel compelled to keep going?

    "One thing Republicans in the Senate can't do is throw a hand grenade at the feet of their own base," said GOP consultant Ralph Reed.

    But the need to assuage those conservatives comes at a growing price. With the trial's outcome now apparent, the longer it drags on, the more potential damage Republicans inflict upon themselves – both in the elections of 2000 and in the eyes of history.

    As John J. Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, put it yesterday, "Right now, people think of impeachment and Republicans in the same thought."

    Nothing is likely to change that impression between now and the end of the trial.

    House Republicans created this problem, but Senate Republicans are responsible for trying to solve it. And the more they attempt to accommodate the House "managers" – and their own conservative base – on procedural questions, they more they risk reinforcing the partisan divisions that have marked the impeachment process since it was launched in the House.

    Reed said most conservatives are resigned to an outcome that leaves Clinton condemned in some fashion but still in office. "I think they're not seeking to hold Republican senators' feet to the fire on conviction, but on a display of moral courage and a fair and complete trial," he said.

    But contemporary historians said yesterday the continued partisan divisions over whether Clinton should be impeached and convicted for his conduct in the Lewinsky matter risk stamping the whole process as a bitter political fight, not a reasoned, legal process.

    "It's going to be all the more difficult for historians to take the [Republican] argument about the rule of law all that seriously," said Robert Dallek, a historian and presidential biographer.

    Pointing to yesterday's dismissal vote, he added, "Is it conceivable that all but one Democrat [Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold] were on the wrong side of the rule of law and all the Republicans were on the right side of the rule of law? It just doesn't measure up."

    Historian Michael Beschloss agreed that the party-line vote on dismissal, which may foreshadow a largely partisan division on conviction or acquittal at the trial's end, makes it more difficult for historians of the future to judge the impeachment of Clinton as entirely legitimate. "It makes it tougher for the impeachment and the trial to look good before the bar of history," he said yesterday.

    Beschloss said it is far from clear how history will judge the past year. "Will they say Bill Clinton was unfairly persecuted or will they say this was a case where Republicans in the House and Senate stood up for a matter of principle that was against their political interests?" he asked.

    It is possible, perhaps even likely, that a few Republicans will vote against convicting Clinton on the two articles of impeachment when the Senate finally votes. But that may be more helpful to the defectors and their own political standing than to the party as a whole. The problem facing the GOP as Senate leaders struggle to end the trial promptly is that the more Republican senators defect on the final vote, the more the process that brought the case to the Senate could be undermined.

    That is why many Democratic strategists have long sensed that the House vote to impeach Clinton presented Democrats with a win-win situation politically. They argue that a short Senate trial leading to Clinton's acquittal would undermine the legitimacy of the House impeachment vote. But a long Senate trial, they said, could damage the Republicans even more than events already have.

    To some analysts, the Republicans' decision to depose witnesses represents the further isolation of congressional Republicans, who have been driven by the party's ideological hard-liners since the GOP took power in the 1994 elections.

    "The congressional wing of the Republican Party has completely isolated itself from the rest of America and from a good chunk of the Republican Party outside Washington," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

    Many Republican governors, while condemning the president's conduct, have warned for weeks that the Senate should find a quick way to end the trial. Last weekend, Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating, a former U.S. attorney who would never qualify as a moderate, said the party had nothing to gain by calling witnesses. "You're never going to have a Perry Mason conclusion" to the Senate trial, he said.

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has labored mightily to satisfy his divided party. The question is whether his efforts to reach across party lines on procedural issues will be washed away by mostly party-line votes on the key issues.

    Political scientist Ross K. Baker of Rutgers University said yesterday that "it would be unfair" to compare the way House and Senate have handled impeachment.

    "In the House there was a void and [both parties were] firing volleys across that void," he said. "In the Senate, they have tried to come to these decisions in a collegial manner. If the spin is that this is more of the same as on the other side of the Capitol, it will delegitimize the whole process."

    But Baker also said it is essential for the GOP to bring the trial to a quick conclusion "if for no other reason than to begin the process of national amnesia."

    Others suggested that, however collegial the Senate proceedings have been, partisan divisions over the disposition of the case will further affect public attitudes toward the Republican Party and how history judges the process.

    The challenge for Lott and other GOP leaders is clear. Having corralled moderate Republican votes to compel the testimony of Lewinsky, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal to satisfy the party's ideological wing, they must now engineer a conclusion that restores the confidence of the American people that the party is listening to them as well.

    Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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