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GOP Moderates Face Consequences of Impeachment Vote

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  • By Marc Fisher and William Claiborne
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Monday, December 21, 1998; Page A16

    When history called, the people's House went its own way.

    In an era when politicians barely breathe without first winning the approval of focus groups, tracking surveys and instant polls, the House of Representatives rose up against the will of nearly two-thirds of the American people and impeached President Clinton. The Republican majority pronounced itself prepared to face the consequences.

    But will there be any? Will voters hold their members of Congress accountable for the impeachment vote? Will a new standard of sexual fidelity be imposed on public officials by the example Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) set in his startling resignation Saturday?

    For the majority of the House Republicans, their vote on Saturday was a safe political choice, because while most Americans may be against impeachment, most registered Republicans are for it. But it is the GOP's moderates the ones Clinton once thought would save him from impeachment who have the most to risk by their vote against the president.

    The moderate Republicans who voted for impeachment know "they are going to be radioactive," said Democratic media consultant Saul Shorr. "The question is, how long is the half-life?" In a nation in which fewer than half the citizens vote and one in four members of Congress win reelection unopposed, can politicians depend on electoral amnesia, or is the impeachment of a president sufficient ballast to shake the public from its civic slumber?

    And has the nation been shaken too severely by the explosion of sexual accusations, most recently Livingston's revelation that he too has been unfaithful?

    Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), one of only four Republicans to vote against all the articles of impeachment, said winning elections is no longer the hard part: Once you gain office, "there is a check on you. Now we are going to do the purification test to see if you can stay in office. The bottom line to this is, this American Revolution is becoming dangerously close to looking like the French Revolution, where you had one leader, then another leader, and the executioner becomes the executed."

    In the wake of their historic vote, the lawmakers generally put on a brave front. Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) told the House he is proud to serve with those who "consider it a privilege to risk political fortune in defense of the Constitution."

    But despite such public professions of principle, many of the moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats who struggled most visibly with the impeachment question say that political worries played an important, if quiet, role in their decisions.

    Some portrayed their vote as a no-win predicament. "This vote will hurt either way," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Fort Lauderdale Republican moderate whose narrow sliver of posh Florida oceanfront gave Clinton 54 percent of its vote in 1996. "Some of your soft support will leave you.

    "But," he added hopefully, "there are two years before another election."

    Some House members felt liberated by the fierce public debate, freed by the opposing pressures to vote their conscience consequences be damned. "Frankly, I am way beyond the point of whether I lose my election as a factor to me," said Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), the first Republican elected to the House from his district in more than 40 years. "I am fully willing to accept the consequences of my decision. ... If I lose my election, I have another life here in the Ohio Valley."

    But others worried that their impeachment vote could jeopardize their hold on office.

    "I expect that there will be a long line of people lining up to challenge me now in the next election," said Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, a newcomer to the House and a Republican in a Democratic district. "But I'll stand behind my decision. There are some things you do without regard to the political consequences. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror."

    For most House members, however, the bottom line may not be terribly dramatic. Relatively few members of Congress are ousted by popular vote; most leave through retirement or pursuit of higher office.

    Republican political consultant Craig Shirley said many Republicans made a safe and smart calculation that they could vote their conscience. Even if national polls show more than six in 10 Americans opposed to impeachment, "if you take out New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston, D.C. and a few other heavily Democratic cities, it's actually quite even, and most Republicans are for impeachment, so this is not a great political risk," Shirley said.

    But other GOP insiders worry that even if individual members of Congress escape punishment at the polls, the party itself will be badly hurt by the impeachment vote.

    "The national Republican leadership has severely underestimated the possible consequences of this kind of proceeding spinning out of control during a trial in the Senate," said Michael Edelman, spokesman for the Westchester County, N.Y., Republican Party. "There are many moderate suburban voters, particularly here in Westchester, who are in no mood to have the credibility of their president undercut in the middle of A, the Iraqi situation, B, the international economic situation and C, as a general principle."

    It is those voters and especially those in districts that are nearly evenly split between parties who will determine the fate of the moderates who voted to impeach.

    Trouble in Iowa City?

    Iowa Republican Jim Leach was among the more morose of those who decided after considerable anguish to vote to impeach the president. He said his traditionally liberal eastern Iowa district where Clinton outpolled Leach by 1 percent in 1996 "holds the president in higher favor than almost any constituency held by a Republican in the Congress."

    "This is the kind of issue that as an elected member you just know you set yourself up for an effort to remove you," Leach said, pronouncing his political future "severely jeopardized."

    That's precisely what Steve and Leslea Collins, both professors at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, have in mind for their congressman. In early October, they founded a grass-roots movement against impeachment with the official motto: "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!" It has now spread to 25 chapters across the country.

    "It's only two years until the next election, and people feel very strongly about it," said Steve Collins, who with his wife delivered a box of anti-impeachment postcards to Leach's office Friday.

    Leaders of both parties in Iowa agreed Leach could face serious trouble. Democratic chairwoman Roxanne Conlin argued that Leach has "survived in a demographically Democratic district by being perceived as relatively nonpartisan, and this is a vote that is clearly partisan. People in the district are clearly disappointed. Many are outraged, in fact."

    In the past, when Leach has engaged in what could be perceived as partisan shots at Clinton, he has taken a hit but survived. As chairman of the House Banking Committee, Leach led hearings probing the Clintons' involvement in the failed Whitewater land development project. The probe yielded no action against the first couple, but fueled resentment against the 11-term Republican congressman. In the 1996 campaign, Leach's Democratic opponent criticized his role in the investigation, and Leach's share of the vote fell from 60 percent in 1994 to 53 percent.

    Watching GOP moderates vote for impeachment was like watching the bad guys in an old movie hold guns to their victims' heads and force them to dig their own graves, said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "But here, the Republicans are doing it on their own, willingly, and with gusto," he said. "It will be seared in people's consciousness."

    Republican consultant Shirley scoffed at that notion. Leach, he said, "is so entrenched, Mark McGwire would have a hard time beating him."

    Fallout in Long Island

    Immediately after he announced that he would vote for impeachment, Rep. Michael P. Forbes (R-N.Y.) hustled back to his Capitol Hill office and began phoning supporters, seeking to minimize the political fallout in his Long Island district.

    He should have called Edward R. Roberts, an art investor who contributed $2,000 to Forbes's campaign in 1997 and 1998. A disgusted Roberts is terminating his support. "I will vote Democrat next time," he said. "As much as I like him, I must say I'm very disturbed. He doesn't represent my views."

    Roberts said Forbes's decision showed he was willing to ignore the majority of his constituents to curry favor with the House GOP leadership. Forbes has been playing a key role in the transition to the new Congress.

    But the political calculus behind a Republican moderate's decision to vote for impeachment was more complicated than doing the leadership's bidding, according to strategists of both parties. They said GOP moderates also may have been driven mostly by fear of drawing a more conservative primary challenger and losing contributions from the GOP campaign apparatus.

    In most cases, said Georgia-based GOP pollster Whit Ayres, the threat of a primary challenge has to be taken more seriously than the possibility of a Democratic opponent in the general election. That's because "the really intense voters" are Republicans who are deeply hostile to Clinton and, therefore, are most likely to hold a grudge two years down the road.

    Some moderates' only hope of clinging to office is continued crossover support. Forbes, for one, could find solace in the reaction of one of the Democratic Party's basic fonts of support organized labor. "Not to say this is something that pleases us, but it doesn't mean that we won't keep the lines of communication open," said Jim Spellane, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which gave $5,000 to Forbes's last campaign.

    The Politics of Sex in Arizona

    Protesters showed up at his office, mail swamped his staff, and Jim Kolbe's own jarring experience with the politics of sex gave him considerable pause. Two years ago, under heavy criticism from gay rights activists because he backed legislation opposing same-sex marriage, Kolbe acknowledged that he is gay.

    The disclosure did not end the Arizona Republican's political career, but his margin of victory narrowed considerably this year. He won only with crossover Democratic support, a sign of Kolbe's moderate reputation and his support of abortion rights, NAFTA and the 1994 crime bill. Will those Democrats now punish Kolbe for voting for impeachment?

    "Frankly, I think Jim is going to be in trouble," said Tucson Democratic Party activist Betty Liggins. "You'd be surprised at the Democrats who crossed over and voted for Kolbe here in Tucson. We like him." Kolbe's district has a history of favoring Democrats such as the Udall brothers and Republican presidential nominees.

    But Mike Henlon, chairman of Arizona's Republican State Committee, minimized the impact of the vote. "Two years is a long time out, especially when people are going Christmas shopping," he said. "This is not in the forefront of their concerns. He will survive this."

    Kolbe, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, said he felt comfortable with his decision. "I'm very much at peace with this," he said. "After 14 years in office, you just begin to realize there are other things that are a little more important. I know I'm okay and will be fine."

    Illinois Support and Single Issues

    In Illinois, support for Republican Gerald "Jerry" Weller will, if anything, deepen now that he has voted for impeachment. During the run-up to the vote, 70 percent of the calls to Weller's office favored impeachment.

    Back in his district which extends south and west from the Chicago area to the northern portions of downstate Illinois constituents who contributed to Weller's last campaign say he did the right thing.

    "I'm glad to hear it, because I couldn't think of any other way to go," said LaVerne Brown of New Lenox. If Weller hadn't decided for impeachment, she said, "I know one thing he would have lost my vote."

    Robert Fitzpatrick, a farmer in Custer Park, was even more forceful.

    "I'm getting tired of hearing that the public, the American people, are tired of hearing about impeachment," he said. "We're tired of hearing about it because it should have happened a long time ago!"

    Fitzpatrick's wife, Nancy, who said she is far more moderate than Weller, said whatever Weller decided to do about impeachment would not have affected her support. "One issue does not make a good or bad congressman," she said.

    That is Rep. William O. Lipinski's thinking exactly. Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat, was one of the last of his party to announce his decision. He voted against impeachment despite hailing from a conservative area of southwest Chicago.

    And even his opposition concedes the vote won't hurt him. "I just don't see this as a vulnerable part of Bill Lipinski's belly at this point," said Christine Dudley, executive director of the Illinois Republican Party.

    Said Lipinski, "I doubt very seriously that this one issue, as momentous as it is, will take supporters away from me."

    In Clinton's Arkansas: Exhaustion

    Jay Dickey was spent. The Arkansas Republican, who represents Bill Clinton's hometowns of Hope and Hot Springs, had avoided his moment of truth for weeks. And now he had finally fessed up to his constituents that he was going against The Man from Hope.

    All day Friday, he waited his turn, until finally at 6:30 p.m., he read his remarks on the floor, telling the chamber that his constituents were in "denial" about Clinton.

    And now it was done. Dickey said he desperately needs some time to himself in the next few days, away from the political pressures. And then he will begin working to mend his constituents' broken hearts and to save his job.

    "They have forgiven Bill Clinton for his mistakes, so perhaps they will also understand why I did what I did," Dickey said. "I'll explain that I voted my conscience and I'll listen. That's all I can do."

    Staff writers Stephen Barr, Thomas B. Edsall, Patrice Gaines, Amy Goldstein, Marcia Slacum Greene, Judith Havemann, Dan Morgan, Peter Perl, Lois Romano, Rene Sanchez, Susan Schmidt, John Schwartz, Jackie Spinner, Lena H. Sun and Eric L. Wee contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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