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GOP Analysts Fear Long-Term Damage

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  • By Thomas B. Edsall and Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, January 10, 1999; Page A1

    The impeachment of President Clinton has inflamed long-standing ideological divisions within the Republican Party, weakened the party's image among independent and swing voters and now threatens to inflict long-term political damage, according to analysts from both parties.

    With some recent polls showing the party with a 2 to 1 unfavorable image, Republican strategists are far more worried now than they were 45 days ago about the impact of the impeachment process on the party's political health.

    Many now fear that the hangover from the bitter, partisan battle will hurt GOP candidates in the 2000 elections, particularly races for the House and Senate, unless there is a relatively quick -- and harmonious -- resolution in the Senate.

    Republican strategists say the impeachment process threatens to stamp the GOP as an anti-Clinton party that is devoid of positions on issues the vast majority of the public cares about.

    "We're getting boxed into a very narrow box, which is an anti-Clinton box," said GOP pollster Jan van Lohuizen. "The only way to get over it is to get over [impeachment] and start talking about issues. We have to have something to say other than that Clinton is a bad guy, and right now we don't."

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), recognizing the potential dangers to his party's political future, worked hard last week to give the Senate proceedings an aura of bipartisanship. If that mood prevails, and if the Senate avoids a lengthy trial, it could mitigate the damage already done, analysts said.

    Until Lott's success in finding a bipartisan way to start the trial, the effort to impeach the president reinforced the image of party leaders catering to conservative Republican activists at the expense of reaching out to moderate and independent voters who will be decisive in the major contested elections less than two years from now, these analysts added.

    Whit Ayres, an Atlanta-based GOP pollster, said the impeachment issue has "tarnished the image of the Republican Party as the party that is against big, intrusive government," which for the past two decades has been fundamental to Republican political gains.

    In addition, he said, the public now sees the party almost totally through the prism of impeachment. "Voters who favor removal of the president have a favorable opinion of the GOP, and voters who are opposed to removal have an unfavorable opinion," Ayres said. "As long as a majority of the country continues to oppose removal of the president, then that definition is a liability."

    Both partisan and independent analysts said the impeachment issue is reinforcing internal Republican divisions over such social issues as abortion and gay rights that have plagued the party over the past two decades.

    Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said his polling showed that Republican partisans with libertarian leanings are more disaffected from the party than are religious and cultural conservatives.

    Ayres said voters who are primarily concerned with maintaining individual and personal freedoms are the most put off by the impeachment drive.

    Republican favorability ratings remain much higher among those Republicans who stress that in the 2000 election "we should have a president of higher moral character" than among those GOP voters who believe that a public official's personal life should remain private.

    Fred Yang, whose firm conducts polls for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, said voters who support impeachment are disproportionately white evangelicals who are more likely to identify themselves as conservative than the electorate as a whole.

    Polling conducted by CBS News and the New York Times underscored how much the Republican base has been fractured by impeachment.

    Roughly a quarter of loyal GOP voters disapprove of the drive to impeach Clinton, according to Cheryl Arnedt, deputy director for surveys at CBS. From last October through the beginning of this month, their view of their own party has become increasingly negative. In October, these anti-impeachment Republicans had a favorable view of the party by a spread of 5 to 1. Today, that ratio stands at 1 to 1.

    At the same time, the CBS-New York Times surveys found that disapproval of the Democratic Party among this segment of GOP voters has diminished substantially. Last October, three in four of these Republican voters held an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party. Today as many see the Democrats favorably as unfavorably.

    These anti-impeachment Republicans represent only a fraction (roughly 8 percent) of the total electorate. But from a strategic point of view, their support is crucial to GOP hopes of winning closely contested elections in 2000. For a quarter of the base to begin to waver in its loyalty is a major threat to a political party's prospects in an election year when the presidency, the House and the Senate could change hands.

    Kohut noted that in analyzing his data from September to December, the shift from favorable views of the GOP to unfavorable was much larger among men (a 16-point drop) than among women (a 6-point drop). Among voters with college degrees, there was a drop of 17 percentage points, compared with an 8-point drop among high school graduates.

    Other analysts said defections are greatest among younger and more affluent conservative voters, as well as those who live on the East and West coasts.

    Some Republican strategists remain impeachment hard-liners, but they appear less confident that the inquiry into Clinton's activities, when fully revealed, will convince the public that the president should be removed from office.

    "Our favorable rating has fallen dramatically," said GOP pollster Linda DiVall. "Sometimes there is a price for doing the right thing." But she argued that short-circuiting the process would hurt the party more than pressing forward.

    Bill McInturff, a pollster who views impeachment as a crucial test of Republican backbone, asked, "Who could possibly try to argue that Republicans are trying to do this thing for political reasons?" He said that all the political indicators are tilting against the GOP.

    Greg Stevens, a Republican media consultant who has been surprised by the impact on the party's image, expressed the ambivalence many Republicans feel about the choices they face. "I attribute [the party's decline] to the fact that we appear to be so partisan and so single-minded on some sort of retribution -- which by the way I personally favor -- but that doesn't mean it makes sense for the party or the leadership or the folks who represent us."

    Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster, said he still believed that once the impeachment trial ends and the presidential nomination process begins, Republicans will be able to present a more appealing face to the public. Impeachment "will wash away because we will give people another reason on which to vote," he said.

    But he said he worried that the party's current problems may trigger internal battles that could prove costly. "The higher the unfavorables go, the more infighting," he said.

    Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who predicted the impeachment issue would help Democrats in the elections last November, said last week that almost any outcome in the Senate will further damage Republicans. A quick conclusion would undermine the legitimacy of the House actions, he said, while a long trial would reinforce the party's anti-Clinton image. "I think people did believe the elections made a statement [against impeachment]," he said. "Going forward as if no election has happened has made people feel frustrated and powerless."

    Another Republican strategist, who asked not to be identified, said it will take considerable time for Republicans to recover from the damage the impeachment process has inflicted on the party -- even though he argued that House Republicans did the right thing by voting to impeach the president. "It can't be repaired by rhetoric," he added. "It has to be repaired with results. We've got to demonstrate we're capable of doing something."

    Before last month's House vote on impeachment, many Republican strategists were confident that, no matter what the outcome, the issue would be long forgotten by the time of the 2000 elections. Now, some are more pessimistic.

    "I thought that was true at the time," van Lohuizen said, "but the trend numbers on the Republican and Democratic parties are really disconcerting. We were about even. Now the Democrats have a 2 to 1 favorable image and we have the opposite. That is as big as I've seen since I've been around. I don't think you can assume two years is enough to make that go away."

    Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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