Analysis: Reality Meets Rhetoric
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page A37
In an atmosphere of partisan rancor, Washington yesterday confronted a leadership crisis that has infected two branches of government and could soon spread to the third.
On the same day that President Clinton became the first chief executive in 130 years to be impeached by the House of Representatives, resignation forced the second vacancy in the House speakership in barely a month. Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.), in line to succeed Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), stunned his colleagues by stepping aside and challenging the president to do the same thing.
Hours later, the House voted two bills of impeachment against Clinton, setting the stage for a Senate trial that will expose Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who will preside at the trial, to the same partisan storm that rocked the House during the past few weeks.
With Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) already under fire for comments undercutting bipartisan support for the U.S. military engagement in Iraq, the top ranks of American government consisted of wary recruits, walking wounded and refugees. In a week when the unbelievable became the ordinary, apocalyptic rhetoric filled the House chamber yesterday. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) warned that the country was "on the brink of the abyss." Livingston decried "the enmity and the hostility" bred into Congress this year.
But for once, the overblown rhetoric seemed apt. There was no doubting that the decision by the House to send two articles of impeachment to the Senate puts the country on an unpredictable course, leaves the national government on hold and challenges members of both parties to exercise genuine leadership in a climate of pettiness and partisanship.
"We're floating, we're absolutely floating," said Charles O. Jones, a presidential scholar at the University of Wisconsin. "There's got to be a turning away from this cancerous situation . . . but how the hell you get there is not clear to me."
Former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, who has been both a defender and a harsh critic of the president over the course of the investigation, said he worried about whether the capacity for leadership existed to get through the crisis.
"We've always been blessed in this country that, when we faced crisis, leadership has come forward to see us through tough times," he said yesterday. "The greatest fear now is whether they will rise to the occasion. . . . Our democracy is guided either by leadership or by crisis, and for now, crisis is dominating."
The impeachment proceedings have left Clinton's credibility in shreds and his legacy permanently tarnished. Despite strong approval ratings from the public, his ability to govern in Washington has been compromised, even if he remains in office, according to scholars contacted yesterday.
But now the crisis also has claimed two GOP House leaders. A month ago, Gingrich stepped down after his party suffered disappointing losses in the midterm elections. Yesterday it was Livingston, felled by revelations this week about past marital infidelity.
Republicans are left without a recognizable national leader. It could take months for those in the House to regain their footing, and even longer to gain the country's confidence.
"Everyone has lost credibility in this process," said Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, general chairman of the Democratic Party. "Many mistakes have been made, and there are many flaws on the table."
Vin Weber, a former GOP House member, said Clinton could change the equation. "I think he should have resigned some time ago," Weber said. But failing that, he added that the president "should quit trying through his surrogates to vilify the process and make it clear he will not try to undermine or stall the process or engage in character assassination against the senators."
But nothing that happened after yesterday's vote suggested a turning away from the politics that were on display over the past few weeks. Instead, partisanship prevailed even as political leaders decried its effects.
Clinton, at a White House rally with House Democrats, once again called on the Senate to produce a "a reasonable bipartisan and proportionate response" to short-circuit a Senate trial. But if Republicans in the Senate hoped for anything more, he disappointed them. Instead he put his faith in the polls that show the public opposed to impeachment and denounced "excessive partisanship" that his presidency has helped to bring about.
Gephardt, who drew two standing ovations in the House in the past two days by calling for an end to the politics of personal destruction, joined Clinton at the White House and attacked what happened in the House as "a disgrace to our country."
Nor did Republicans sound as if they were ready to move on. Instead, they echoed Livingston's challenge to Clinton to resign as the quickest way to end the crisis.
The day's events left Republican pollster Bill McInturff pessimistic about the GOP's prospects to win the debate as impeachment moves to the Senate. The process, he said, has been "very corrosive to the Republican Party's standing," noting recent polls.
McInturff said Livingston's announcement further weakens the GOP, which faces an inherent adverse balance of power when Republican congressional leaders try to take on a Democratic president who has better access to television and who can present a coherent, one-voice message. "We have no national spokesman," McInturff said. With Livingston gone, "it just means there is not an easily established Republican who can make the case that can and should be made."
Some analysts said that the Senate, known more than the House for comity and bipartisanship, is the appropriate body to try to resolve the impeachment matter and the breakdown of the political process. But others said the assumption that the Senate will quickly attempt to find a compromise underestimates the strength of the charges against Clinton and the seriousness with which senators will take their responsibilities.
"Most likely he will be exonerated, but I don't assume it," Weber said.
The crisis in leadership that threatens to paralyze the government could last well beyond a Senate trial.
If Clinton survives, said Robert Dallek, a biographer of President Lyndon B. Johnson, "We will settle down to a desultory year and a half" in which Clinton will nominally exercise the powers of his office but struggle to achieve anything significant because of his diminished moral authority.
Republicans face a similarly long period of sorting themselves out, with a number of analysts suggesting the party will lack strong leadership until it picks a presidential nominee in 2000. "We're in for a long interregnum until we have a nominee," McInturff said.
Others argued that if Clinton survives, he and Republicans will be under pressure to get something accomplished. Clinton's motivation will be a desire to burnish his legacy. Republicans will be struggling to hold on to their majorities in the House and Senate and will need to show the public they can govern as a congressionally based party.
That could put Clinton at odds with the very congressional Democrats who defended him in the impeachment proceeding. As Panetta put it, "Democrats know right now they have their best chance to regain control of Congress, and any legislative achievements by Congress could hurt those chances."
But filling the leadership vacuum that exists in Washington will be difficult unless something changes the current atmosphere. "Is there a point where enough political actors can pull together and others can wake up out of their nightmare and say this is a bad dream?" asked presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton University. "There's no way of knowing."
Staff writer Thomas B. Edsall contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company