Conservatives often pride themselves on being immune from the vagaries of fashion. But there is a new rage in Republican circles these days: Let's call it impeachment chic. Listen to talk radio, surf the Internet, read conservative editorials, and you'll notice that what were once underground murmurs about impeaching President Clinton are now an above-ground roar.
One problem: Instead of sullying the Clinton White House, this impeachment impulse threatens to sink the Republican agenda in quicksand.
Conservatives' disapproval of President Clinton has always been as much personal as political. After all, he is not just a Democrat -- he's a draft-dodging, Hollywood-schmoozing, idea-stealing self-promoter with an Oxford degree and an infuriating ability to charm. By 1993, the culture of Clinton bashing had mushroomed into a cottage industry. His first inauguration was barely over when bumper stickers like "Impeach Clinton and Her Husband, Too" began appearing on pickup trucks. Waco, Whitewater and Vince Foster's suicide lit up talk-radio telephone boards, and the discussion invariably turned to the "I" word.
But the early impeachment rumbles were limited to the conservative fringe and easily passed off as a humorous fad. Then, last spring, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) took impeachment out of quirkdom and into the halls of Congress when he requested that the House Judiciary Committee begin an impeachment investigation of both the president and vice president. He cited Whitewater and campaign-finance allegations in accusing Clinton and Gore of "abuse of power." The response from his Republican colleagues was temperate. House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) called Barr's impeachment request "premature." Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) said, "We need to adopt a wait-and-see approach." Nonetheless, Barr's impeachment stance landed him on the national media map. His seat on the House Government Oversight Committee (which is conducting one of the campaign finance investigations), gives him another important outlet.
The GOP leadership's failure to rebuke Barr -- or even to disavow his effort -- has helped the impeachment craze spread to other arenas. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has warned Attorney General Janet Reno that she "runs the risk of impeachment" for dragging her feet in appointing an independent counsel to investigate campaign finance. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) wants to impeach some of the president's judicial appointments. With all this impeachment talk, it is easy to understand the popularity of Web sites such as www.impeachclinton.org, and sizable advance orders for books such as R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.'s wishful parable, "The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton."
When esteemed novelist and Dole speech writer Mark Helprin recently walked down the impeachment runway in a Wall Street Journal column headlined simply "Impeach," the movement took on a decidedly highbrow tone. Helprin called Congress's failure to commence impeachment proceedings "an evasion of duty" and urged someone in Congress "to step out in front and take some fire." (Didn't Barr already do that?)
Conservatives are frustrated, understandably, because Clinton is still in office. There's no sign that Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr has any indictments up his sleeve for the First Family, and Sen. Fred Thompson's finance hearings are sputtering toward a December deadline. But frustration is no reason to invoke the most powerful political weapon in the U.S. Constitution.
Our sole modern-day experience with impeachment should convince Republicans to reject even oblique hints that the time has come to seek formal charges against the president. During the Watergate hearings, the House voted articles of impeachment against President Nixon only after the facts about the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters were publicly aired, and only after the Oval Office tapes had provided dispositive evidence of Nixon's involvement in the nefarious plot. Watergate did not begin with impeachment. It culminated in it.
The facts in Watergate were clear -- there was a breaking and entering at the committee headquarters and the subsequent White House coverup was captured on tape as well as recounted in riveting detail by presidential adviser John Dean. Because the charges against Nixon were supported both by compelling documentary evidence and witness testimony, the American people could swallow -- and eventually support -- the House's move toward impeachment. In January 1973, at the beginning of the investigation, Nixon's popularity was solid. By the time he resigned in the summer of 1974, it had plummeted.
As for President Clinton, the ethics inquiries, investigations or hearings have yet to produce the sort of concrete and specific evidence of serious personal wrongdoing that would justify impeachment proceedings. Ditto for the recently released "Best of the Clinton Coffees" videos, which some conservatives have been slam dancing to since the day they were first played three weeks ago. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) publicly speculated that the White House may have tampered with the tapes (a felony) because the videos end "abruptly."
The closest thing to a smoking gun is the videotape in which Clinton talks about raising soft money to get around the federal campaign spending limits. But even a conspiracy to violate that law is only a misdemeanor. Are Republicans really comfortable pursuing impeachment for that degree of wrongdoing, especially given the chaos that it would likely cause in the country's financial markets or the damage it might do to foreign relations?
To date, most Americans have not bought into the notion, offered by Helprin and other conservatives, that the totality of Clinton's actions justify impeachment. People may lift up their heads and take notice, but only after a sober presentation of irrefutable evidence. Republicans who are allowing impeachment talk to bubble up within GOP ranks should ask themselves how the American people will judge a conservative-driven impeachment of the president at a time when polls show that 55 percent of them are satisfied with his job performance and are thoroughly uninterested in the current scandal mongering. The answer is unimpeachable: Floating the impeachment boat at this stage only helps foster the unfair stereotype that Republicans are mean-spirited partisans.
Certainly, elected officials have a duty to uphold the law and protect the institution of government from disgrace and dishonor. Thus, the allegations against Clinton ought to be pursued, and vigorously. Nevertheless, political leaders also have the responsibility not to destroy their own party -- and not to advocate actions that detract from party goals. When Republicans lob impeachment grenades, they convey a guerrilla-warfare mentality not suited to a majority party. At a time when conservative ideas -- from school choice to ending racial preferences -- are catching on across the country, Republicans cannot afford to be sidetracked by Clinton bashing and impeachment gossip.
The real way to "get" Clinton is to beat him on the issues. Challenge him to defend what teachers' unions have done to our public schools. Write legislation to gut onerous business regulations and let Clinton veto it. Explain the junk science behind Gore's global-warming obsession. Let the public judge the character issue for themselves. Ronald Reagan followed this mantra with astonishing success. The latest Republican victory on reforming the IRS shows that when conservatives focus their energy and take their agenda to the heartland, President Clinton usually capitulates.
Admittedly, there is a romantic Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Washington aura about crusading against chicanery and deception in the Clinton White House. For now, intimations of impeachment have about them an air of desperation. What if Republicans actually succeeded in impeaching and convicting our lame duck president of, let's say, obstruction of justice? The day after President Clinton was choppered out of Washington, we'd still have an unnecessary Department of Education, an oppressive tax code and a fraud-ridden Medicare system. For a party that cannot seem to get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts, impeaching the president is an ambitious -- and politically foolhardy -- undertaking. Laura Ingraham is a political analyst for CBS Evening News. CAPTION: Got one of these? You're missing the point.