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Analysis: One Week Defines 'Partisan'

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 18, 1998; Page A1

    A decade of destructive partisanship, personal attack and win-at-all-cost politics have crystallized in Washington this week, and the question no one can begin to answer is where it will end.

    From the unexpectedly harsh criticism by key Republican leaders of President Clinton's decision to launch a military strike against Iraq on the eve of a House impeachment vote to yesterday's confession by House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) of past marital indiscretions, any semblance of normalcy to the conduct of public life has evaporated.

    "Last week, this city reminded people of Beirut in the 1980s," said Kenneth Duberstein, former chief of staff in the Reagan administration. "It now reminds people of the napalm-bombed Vietnam: total scorched earth. It is very sad for this place." This descent into the swamps of conflict, suspicion and raw partisanship has been coming for years. As a former official in the administration put it late yesterday, "If you rip away the civility from our politics, the country and our institutions pay a terrible price."

    That price is the growing disillusionment by the public toward political life in Washington and a coarsening of the system designed to resolve differences peacefully and honorably. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, there appears to be no incentive to playing the game any other way.

    Each expression of distrust is repaid in kind. Judging from reactions, no one will be able to convince Republicans that the news about Livingston's private life was not instigated by Democratic opponents. Nor can many Democrats be convinced that the impeachment proceedings represent anything more than partisan payback for accumulated grievances.

    It is hard to say where it all started. Vietnam? Watergate? A succession of Senate confirmation battles – the most notable being those of Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas – that turned into open warfare between the parties and between opposing cultures in the country? The resignation of former House speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.)? The election of Clinton? The GOP takeover of both houses in 1994?

    The elements of this style of politics are now familiar to an increasingly disconnected country: negative campaigns, the relentless exposure of the private lives of politicians, a political system corrupted by huge amounts of money, war-room politics, government by permanent campaign, accelerated news cycles and a destroy-your-opponent mentality.

    This conflict has intensified of late for several reasons. One is that the political landscape is so evenly balanced between the two parties right now. Neither Republicans nor Democrats can gain the upper hand, but each is determined to win it all in every election. Every skirmish becomes a significant battle.

    Another factor is that the parties too often have found that the politics of polarization win elections, whatever the cost to governing. At times, the two parties have allowed their extreme wings to dominate, at the expense of the middle. Civility has become a casualty.

    There is no question that the events of 1998 have rubbed raw the nerves of partisans on both sides, and that the impending impeachment vote has added to the bitter feelings in both parties. The notion of impeachment as a solemn and sober process has disappeared in the welter of partisan argument.

    Clinton may feel the victim as the House prepares to debate today, but even those who have defended him and worked for him acknowledge privately that he bears considerable responsibility for where the country stands this week. His credibility, they say, has been damaged by his conduct. Is it any wonder, some say, that Republicans distrust his motives in attacking Iraq?

    "The depth of the damage he's caused himself, and the extent to which his relations with Congress have been strained all came together" on Wednesday, said one Democrat who asked not to be identified.

    But privately, many Republicans despair at how members of their own congressional leadership responded to the attack. The decision by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to issue a statement opposing the action baffled and angered GOP members.

    It was left yesterday to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), long known for his combative, partisan instincts, to attempt to show his fellow Republicans a model of opposition leadership.

    Gingrich went to the well of the House to deliver an eloquent statement of America's responsibilities to the world and a pointed reminder to his colleagues of the president's unique role in that leadership. "Let me be very clear," Gingrich said. "I believe the United States has to lead . . . and the president of the United States has to provide that leadership every day, 365 days a year."

    He continued: "We have a chance to say today to the world: no matter what our constitutional process, whether it is an election even or it is the eve of a constitutional vote, no matter what our debates at home, we are as a nation prepared to lead the world."

    Gingrich was not the only Republican to endorse the president's decision, if not all aspects of the administration's policy toward Iraq. Sens. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), John McCain (Ariz.) and others offered unequivocal support. "It wasn't a matter of trust or lack of trust in the president of the United States," McCain said in an interview. "It was the overwhelming evidence that these strikes were warranted because of Saddam Hussein's transgressions."

    But the statements by Lott, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and others questioning the Iraqi action continued to raise eyebrows yesterday. Lott attempted to explain his statement during an interview on CNN, but did little to erase the impression of a Senate leader who sees the world in starkly partisan terms.

    Recalling the congressional debate over the Gulf War resolution in January 1991, Lott said, "I don't believe there was a single Democrat who voted for it." In reality, 10 Senate Democrats, including Vice President Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, and 86 House Democrats supported the resolution. Lott apparently forgot that in 1991, Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, meaning the resolution could not have passed without Democratic votes.

    Vin Weber, a former Republican House member from Minnesota with close ties to GOP congressional leaders, warned of the potential damage to his party in an interview yesterday. "My sense is that the party over the last week to 10 days has slowly been achieving the moral high ground because the country is slowly becoming convinced that our stand on impeachment is a stand of principle, not politics," he said. "It could be incredibly damaging if they conclude we're putting our desire to get the president ahead of the country's interest on the Iraqi matter."

    But Weber said there are some understandable reasons Republicans feel such anger toward Clinton. "You really do have to ask what did this president do over the course of the last six years to engender such total contempt, disrespect and even loathing by so many people on Capitol Hill," he said. "You can't say it's just because Republicans hate Clinton. The president bears some responsibility for having allowed the political culture of this town to polarize so much over him."

    If the argument over Clinton and Iraq strained relations, the revelations about Livingston inflamed them even more – though no one had any immediate evidence of how the information had come to light. First it was Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who was forced to acknowledge a past sexual affair. Now the incoming speaker of the House – on the eve of the impeachment vote.

    In the current atmosphere, there will be no benefits-of-the-doubt offered, no stepping back, no quarter given. The impeachment debate will run its course, whatever the outcome, and then everyone will have to assess the damage.

    The country has been here before. Vituperative politics, personal accusations and roiling partisanship are well documented in American history. But rarely have events played out with the visibility and the decibel level that comes with the technology of late 20th-century America.

    The question is whether the genie can be put back in the bottle, and no one has the answer. The first test will come when the impeachment issue has been resolved and attention turns to the 2000 elections. Few campaigns have been waged for higher stakes, with the House, Senate and presidency all up for grabs.

    Some of those contemplating presidential candidacies, including Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) and former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), may run against the politics of Washington as it has been waged for the past decade. If they do, there may be a receptive audience in the country for such a message. But after all that has happened this year, and all that has happened this week, there is no guarantee that the political system itself will allow it to happen or reward them if they do.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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