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Will GOP Pay at the Polls? Views in Party Vary Widely

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Terry M. Neal and Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, December 15, 1998; Page A18

    Impeaching President Clinton may be the right thing to do, numerous Republican leaders said yesterday. But there was widespread disagreement over whether the GOP would pay a price if it punishes -- and possibly ousts -- the popular president for his sexual misconduct.

    In interviews with GOP governors, state chairmen and other party activists, many said the public will accept the decision Congress makes, as long as the process is seen as fair and judicious. But others fear that the prospect of removing Clinton from office could lead to a backlash for a party that already suffered at the polls last month.

    In San Diego, voters are more worried about the economic crises in Asia and South America than about impeachment, said Mayor Susan Golding. She fears her party is threatened by the perception that it is obsessed with scandal. "Nowhere I go is it discussed," she said. "It's not that people think he did a good thing, it's just not what's on people's minds. They want to know where we're going" and what the GOP agenda is.

    "If I were in the House I would seek an agreement with the president," said Montana Gov. Marc Racicot. His main concern is that the response by Congress be "proportionate to the offense that may have been committed."

    And a handful of moderate Republicans, such as New York Gov. George E. Pataki and former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld, oppose impeachment altogether.

    Some conservatives, however, maintain that the politically astute thing to do is stand on principle.

    Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating said the polls are irrelevant. "If it's handled in a forthright, idealistic way, the public will grow up to the decision, whatever the decision is," said Keating, who believes Clinton should be impeached. "The mark of honor is to do what you think is right."

    Like Keating, Michigan Gov. John Engler said last week's impeachment hearings in the Judiciary Committee helped reinforce Clinton's lawlessness and protect the GOP from a backlash in the 2000 elections. "All the polling, all of the media analysis isn't worth a whole hell of a lot," Engler said.

    At this point, it's too late to derail the impeachment train, said Washington state GOP consultant Brett Bader. "It would be a disaster for the Republican Party to abandon this now," he said. "If they were to go to the edge and step back it would be such an indication of being so politically wishy-washy it would really hurt.

    "I still don't think public opinion is with us," Bader continued, "but I think public opinion turns sharper against Republicans if they abandon it."

    Stephen Duprey, New Hampshire GOP chairman, said: "As this has gone on, more and more Americans have started realizing this isn't about the sex, but whether he lied under oath. The more that sinks in, the better that is for Republicans who vote for impeachment."

    Former vice president Dan Quayle has argued that lawmakers will not be penalized if they cast a vote of conscience, said his spokesman Kyle McSlarrow. "If the American people perceive members as doing their duty, [Quayle] believes any future elections will take care of themselves."

    But others weren't as confident the party would emerge unscathed. Even some who believe Clinton should be impeached say the GOP could be damaged for years to come.

    Iowa GOP Chairman Steve Grubbs said: "I don't think it's a good thing politically for the Republican Party, but it's probably the right thing for the country."

    California GOP Chairman Mike Schroeder said most voters haven't drawn the distinction between impeachment and removal from office. He suggested Congress impeach Clinton and then pass a "sense of Congress resolution" urging the Senate to remove Clinton only if a trial proves a pattern of obstructing justice. "I think if we simply impeach him, we will pay a heavy political price," Schroeder said. "I think the voters have been very clear; they do want him punished but he should not be removed."

    The November elections were tough on California Republicans, who lost gubernatorial and Senate races. Schroeder blamed that in part on a lack of party message and backlash at the national GOP's focus on scandal. He said he urged party leaders not to run anti-Clinton ads before the election, but "they did it anyway, and it was a disaster for us."

    Florida GOP Chairman Tom Slade said he believed that the Judiciary Committee hearings proved Clinton committed crimes and that he should be impeached. But he said he hoped Congress could get it over quickly. "I have an ongoing concern about issues that are going to influence the outcome of the election process in '99 and 2000, and obviously this is one of those issues," he said.

    Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster told the Associated Press over the weekend: "I'm sick and tired of this. I think the whole country is sick and tired of this, and if they don't get this over with, and get it off the front page, there's going to be hell to pay."

    A spokesman said yesterday that the governor has not publicly said whether he thinks Clinton should be impeached, but that he has grown exasperated by the process. "It's going to leave a bad taste in people's mouth and could hurt Republicans in the future," Trey Williams said.

    "The [GOP] leadership had no plan [in 1998] and they were punished for it," said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP consultant. If impeachment "is the Republican leadership's plan for 2000, we'll get our heads handed to us. We cannot spend two more years talking about impeachment."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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