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GOP May Find Itself the Truly Embarrassed Party

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 28, 1999; Page C1

    When it comes to Republicans and impeachment, to running up a string of wins only to slip into the drainage ditch of history, old King Pyrrhus would understand.

    He's been there, done that. Amassed an outstanding army in 285 B.C., butt-whipped the Carthaginian fleet and bested the Roman legions. But he lost so many soldiers that his army evaporated on the very cusp of victory.

    So the good king slipped into history's maw, bequeathing us but two words: Pyrrhic victory.

    As in, you can't win for winning.

    The Republicans know the feeling. These impeachment victories are killing them.

    "It isn't doing much for our image," says Ed Gillespie, a longtime operative for the Grand Old Party. "Right now, we're the cranky-old-uncle party."

    Looked at from a distance – from the moon, say – the Republican maneuvering to keep this impeachment alive is most impressive. Republican funders underwrote the Paula Jones lawsuit. The former House speaker kept it hot by hammering at presidential "crimes." A querulous presidential apology in August accomplished little and Rep. Henry Hyde dodged the liberal pitchforks and voted a bill of impeachment out of the Judiciary Committee.

    Then Majority Whip Tom DeLay got the full House to do the same, even as smart money proclaimed impeachment a dead issue.

    And just when it appeared impeachment might expire, as Senate Republicans edged toward the view that calling witnesses was another not-so-smooth move, Hyde's 13 Angry Men summoned to Washington this scandal's talisman: Monica.

    Before you could spell L-e-w-i-n-s-k-y, the Republican senators were voting yesterday to depose witnesses.

    It's win-win-win. But to what end?

    The Republicans' poll ratings are sleeping with the fishes. Their unannounced presidential front-runner, George W. Bush, is pleading with Republicans to put a cork in it. And even Hyde is suggesting, humor us and at the appointed hour we'll walk quietly into the night.

    "The House members probably don't want to go into the 2000 election saying, 'Our achievement is that we almost impeached a president,'" says Harrison Hickman, a pollster for the Democratic Party.

    A few of Hyde's House colleagues speak of the chairman with the sort of detached admiration one might harbor for a particularly dexterous kamikaze pilot.

    "However ill-advised it was to vote impeachment out of the House, Hyde's just doing what he has to now," says Rep. Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican who voted against impeachment. "Certain things have to happen now, and he's a good tactician."

    It's not quite the glorious uprising the House Republican Rough Riders once envisioned. And that speaks to a broader problem for the Party of the Elephant: Its impeachment obsession overshadows its every victory.

    For a millennium or so, the Republicans championed balanced budgets, welfare reform and tax cuts. So what happens? The nation has a balanced budget, welfare reform and tax cuts. Victories all.

    But the guy traveling around taking the most credit is . . . President Clinton. As for the Republicans? They're shoveling coal in the boiler room, covered in grime, trying to impeach the man who signed their victories into law.

    "We're like the dog that caught the pickup truck," Gillespie says. "We never really stopped to claim credit for our achievements. We just kept shouting."

    It gets worse. Last November, a majority of Americans at every level – House, Senate and gubernatorial elections – voted Republican. But the Republican town criers, George Will and his bow-tied ilk, predicted that the party would fare far better. So it played as a Democratic victory.

    "The more they win, the more they lose," notes a less than mournful Hickman. "It seems they just can't get credit."

    Then there's the Republicans' gumshoe gambit, their baker's dozen of investigations and conspiracy theories: Whitewater-Travelgate-Filegate-Vince Foster. Every hearing is a victory, another way to spray a little embarrassment the president's way.

    Except . . . it doesn't play out that way.

    Take the Clinton campaign fund-raising scandal. So juicy. It's got soft money, hard money, Chinese Reds and Buddhist monks – in saffron robes, no less! – and a fat clot of unsavory big-buck types.

    Alas, the public yawns. Then the House's chief Republican investigator on matters of campaign finance, Indiana's Dan Burton, is found to have threatened a lobbyist for Pakistan for campaign cash. And he opines that the president is a "scum bag."

    Whoops! Bring on the next issue.

    Shays, the Republican moderate, sighs. He notes that his party pushed the investigation but promptly killed campaign finance reform. He draws a comparison to the Democrat-driven reforms that arose from the ashes of the Watergate scandal.

    "We can't just be the anti-Clinton party of investigation," he says. "It leaves the Democrats as the party of governing and we lose that one."

    But Clinton-hating has its virtues, not least that it allows the Republicans to paper over their inability to agree on where to go next. Abortion? Tax cut? Education vouchers? Privatize Social Security?

    No one's sure how to catch the next big wave.

    Gillespie casts the dilemma in gender terms: The Republicans are the macho dads, the Democrats are the moms. And the bad news for Republicans, he says, is that the millennial election is shaping up as Mommy Party time.

    "We're the Daddy Party of crime-fighting and tax cuts and defense spending, and we're in danger of working ourselves out of a job," Gillespie says. "When we start talking about putting Mom and Pop in a retirement home, or fixing HMOs, or saving Social Security, those have been Mommy Party issues.

    "We've got to reposition ourselves."

    Certainly one can overstate the hapless Republican theme. Their glorious Pyrrhic run aside, the Republicans face no grave danger of electoral eclipse. More new voters continue to register as Republicans than as Democrats.

    And the Democrats are seasoned pros at the art of self-immolation. They passed much of the 1980s trying to investigate President Reagan out of office. And more than a few Democrats are now rising to the partisan bait in the Senate.

    Some Democratic-operative types listen to that trio of loquacious Democratic senators – Tom Harkin, Charles Schumer and Robert Torricelli – and get a Bob Barr bad-boy flashback.

    "These guys come out of the House tradition of running up to the [press] gallery and setting their hair on fire to get attention," says one operative. "My advice to the Democrats is the Republicans are doing all the damage to themselves. We should avoid the cameras at all costs and sneak out the back door."

    Besides, the way the Republicans' luck is running, they'll win the vote to convict the president. And wake up to find their poll numbers in single digits.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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