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GOP Conflicted Over Impeachment Fallout

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  • By Thomas B. Edsall and Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, December 11, 1998; Page A22

    As the House Judiciary Committee moves toward recommending the impeachment of President Clinton, more than the future of the Clinton presidency is at stake. The ultimate outcome in the House could have significant consequences for the Republican Party as well.

    The impeachment issue puts congressional Republicans in conflict between the determination of their conservative activists to see Clinton punished for lying about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, and the wishes of the broader public, a majority of whom opposes impeachment.

    Some Republican strategists believe a House vote to impeach Clinton will have few lasting consequences, but others fear it could damage the party's performance in the year 2000 congressional and presidential elections. The party's critics argue that the drive to impeach Clinton against the will of the public represents another act of political self-destruction for the GOP.

    Whit Ayres, a Georgia-based GOP pollster, said that Republicans have an obligation to fulfill their constitutional duties on such a serious issue. "But," he warned, "there is a limit to the amount of time you can drive a position that is supported by only one-third of the electorate without some political consequences."

    But Bill McInturff, another Republican pollster, argued that the decision is too important to make political calculations an important part of the decision-making process on whether to impeach Clinton. A member of Congress weighing how to vote "ought not be thinking about the year 2000," McInturff said. "You ought to be thinking about your obituary years from now, and what are they going to write."

    Democrats maintain Republicans will pay a heavy price if the House impeaches Clinton and subjects him and the country to a lengthy trial in the Senate. They argue that Republicans could lose both their House and Senate majorities in 2000 if the public reacts angrily to the continuation of the scandal debate that has dominated the capital but turned off the public.

    Mark Penn, the pollster for Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, contended that if House Republicans approved articles of impeachment, "It's going to mean the House on a partisan basis would be doing something the voters are categorically opposed to, that goes against their basic and considered sentiments as voters."

    Penn said a vote to impeach Clinton will "identify the Republican Party very strongly with the right wing and I don't think that identification will disappear" before the 2000 elections.

    Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego and a specialist in congressional politics, reinforced that view from a nonpartisan perspective. "It's yet another case where it looks like the party is being dominated by its right wing, and when that happens, the party seems to get in trouble," he said.

    Jacobson added that an impeachment vote could stall the operations of government and rebound against the Republicans the way the government shutdowns did in late 1995. "It repeats a pattern of a kind of headlong rushing in directions that are not popular with the general public and it comes back to hurt the party," he said.

    What makes the political calculations difficult for Republicans is that the pressures within individual congressional districts may be different than the overall mood in the country.

    Many House Republicans represent districts with heavy GOP majorities and a substantial percentage of intensely anti-Clinton, conservative voters. These members often face only token Democratic opposition, and their political survival depends on preventing a GOP primary challenger from getting the traction to take them on from their right flank. A vote against impeachment could provide just such an opening for a challenger.

    But there is a larger political calculus for the party, which is whether it will be branded as a party dominated by the pursuit of Clinton rather than the public interest.

    "This is a delicate and potentially vulnerable time for the party," said Ralph Reed, a GOP strategist and former executive director of the Christian Coalition.

    Poll data suggests that the Republican Party is taking a big gamble in pursuing impeachment. The percentage of voters holding positive views of the GOP four months ago decisively outnumbered those with negative views, but now the negative assessments outweigh the positive, a NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey shows.

    Of those surveyed, 68 percent said Congress should not "impeach Bill Clinton and remove him from office."

    Penn said that in his polling for the DNC, a majority of voters expressed approval of congressional Democrats, 52 percent to 43 percent, but "approval for congressional Republicans has fallen to 38 approve/57 disapprove," and when voters are asked whether they would cast a ballot for a Democrat or Republican running for the House, 45 percent choose a Democrat, and 35 percent picked a Republican.

    Many Republican governors have urged their congressional colleagues to bring the Clinton investigation to a conclusion as quickly as possible, arguing that few people in their states are deeply interested in the issue. But few of these governors have been willing to say publicly they believe the House should stop short of impeachment.

    Montana Gov. Marc Racicot (R) said that, given the likelihood that the Senate will not vote to remove Clinton and the lack of public confidence in the congressional proceedings, censure would be a preferable outcome, assuming Clinton cooperated by acknowledging wrongdoing.

    "My perception is they're [the public] weary and they don't believe the judicial character of the process has been maintained," Racicot said in an interview. "There is an inclination on their part to bring it to a conclusion."

    California Gov. Pete Wilson has also signaled his fear that a continuation of the impeachment process risks a backlash and that censure may be more appropriate.

    Wilson told California reporters this week that whatever the House decides, Congress should quickly end the debate. "I think they should have received the message from the election that that's what the public wants and reasonably expects," he said.

    Some GOP strategists argued that predictions of doom in 2000 if the House votes to impeach Clinton are wildly overstated.

    Kyle McSlarrow, vice chairman of Campaign America, a political committee run by former vice president Dan Quayle, declared: "The vice president has made clear that regardless of the outcome [of the impeachment vote], it will not affect the congressional elections one iota."

    "This will be ancient history by the time of the next elections," said Kieran Mahoney, a New York-based Republican strategist. "A much more seminal event was the Gulf War and it was ancient history by the time the elections rolled around."

    But Mahoney said the Republicans' focus on impeachment badly damaged the party in the midterm elections. "I think we already paid the price for this one and a steep price," he said. "We took what would have been solid congressional majorities in the next century and placed them in jeopardy, at least in the House, for 2000."

    Tom Rath, the New Hampshire GOP national committeeman, agreed that the issue hurt Republicans last month. But he said even if the politically smart vote was against impeachment, House members should vote their consciences.

    "I'm of the old school," he said, "that if it's a choice between politics and conscience, I prefer them to come out on the side of conscience."

    Reed said that the party could survive a House vote to impeach Clinton and a Senate trial if the public perceives Republicans as dealing "with impeachment as 10 percent of a broader political message" that includes work on cutting taxes, improving schools and reforming Social Security.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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