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The GOP's impeachment folly At the national level, Republicans are now driven more by their fear of alienating their base than their hopes of attracting voters in the center.


WASHINGTON -- Way back in January, when Monica S. Lewinsky first popped into the headlines, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, laid down a simple but stern rule for impeachment. Mr. Hyde argued that it didn't make sense to launch an impeachment effort against President Clinton without bipartisan support because a Senate vote to remove him could not succeed unless Democrats backed it. "I would be loath to start something that I didn't think we could finish," Mr. Hyde said then.

All year, Rep. John Linder of Georgia, the 1998 chairman of the House Republicans' campaign committee, took a similar line. "One party," Mr. Linder repeatedly warned, "cannot impeach the other party's president" by itself.

Now, as Ron Ziegler might have put it, those statements are inoperative. This week, Mr. Hyde's Judiciary Committee is poised to pass one or more articles of impeachment against Mr. Clinton on a straight party-line vote. Republicans are mobilizing to push impeachment through the full House on another virtual party-line vote later this month, and pressure is rising on hesitant GOP legislators to fall in line.

Officially, the GOP leadership has termed the vote on impeachment a decision of conscience and is not explicitly lobbying Republicans to support it. But the refusal of both outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and his successor, Bob Livingston of Louisiana, to shape the process has allowed impeachment hard-liners, led by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, to create a climate in which opposition to impeachment is increasingly seen as treason to the party. Mr. Clinton has accelerated that trend himself with a hairsplitting defense that strikes many Republicans as arrogant.

But mostly, the GOP's shift on impeachment reflects an internal shift in the party. At the national level, Republicans are now driven more by their fear of alienating their base than their hopes of attracting voters in the center. Since losing the White House in 1992, almost every time national Republicans have had to choose between trying to broaden their appeal and mollifying the most ideological elements of their coalition, they have chosen to placate their core constituents -- even at the cost of antagonizing the swing voters they need to build a national majority.

Shadow over prospects

That's the same problem that kept Democrats out of the White House for 20 of the 24 years before Mr. Clinton won in 1992. And it casts a huge shadow over Republican dreams of emerging as the nation's dominant party.

Inside the GOP, this tendency has been hardening for years. In 1995, House conservatives engineered two shutdowns of the federal government despite abundant evidence that it was alienating the country and reviving Mr. Clinton's presidency.

In 1997, despite broad public support for the balanced budget deal between Mr. Clinton and Congress, a fierce backlash among conservatives forced the GOP congressional leaders to reverse course and pursue a policy of confrontation and stalemate with the White House that ultimately cost the party at the polls last month. And now, conservative antipathy toward Mr. Clinton has relentlessly advanced the impeachment effort, even in the face of polls showing that Americans oppose impeachment by 2-to-1.

Part of being a majority party is accepting the primacy of public opinion and learning to discipline one's sense of the ideal against one's understanding of the possible. This, on impeachment, even mainstream Republicans remain adamantly unwilling to do. Veteran Republican pollster Bill McInturff is one of the party's most grounded and insightful strategists. Yet in an interview last week, Mr. McInturff said it would be worth it to impeach Mr. Clinton, even if a public backlash against the vote cost Republicans control of the House in 2000.

For Mr. McInturff and many other Republicans, such an uncompromising posture is simply a matter of principle: Given Mr. Clinton's offenses, they consider impeachment, even without any prospect that the Senate will vote to remove him, as the only legitimate punishment. But that stand is sullied by the GOP's conspicuous refusal to defend that principle before last month's election, when voters could have registered a verdict on it.

Before the election, virtually no Republicans were willing to say they would vote to impeach Mr. Clinton. Since the election, the Judiciary Committee hasn't added any significant evidence to the report that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr produced in September. Yet now the overwhelming majority of House Republicans are prepared to support impeachment.

Forgiving, forgetting

Party loyalty and outrage at Mr. Clinton may both feed into that result, but also present is a hardheaded political calculation. As one GOP official puts it, the prevailing view in Republican circles is that the party's base "will never forgive" a vote against impeachment, while moderate voters will forget a vote in favor of it by 2000. That assessment may be overly optimistic, but it is telling: As the impeachment battle culminates, fear of angering the conservative base is proving once again to be the most powerful force in the GOP.

For all of that concern, it's difficult to believe that swing-seat Republican representatives such as California's Brian P. Bilbray and Tom Campbell and Kentucky's Anne M. Northup would seriously consider voting for impeachment if this vote were being held a few weeks before, rather than a few weeks after, an election. Set against the studied silence of October, the Republican clamor for impeachment in December speaks less of principle than of cynicism. Through recklessness and duplicity, Mr. Clinton has already stained his place in history. But a party-line midnight vote for impeachment would memorialize the GOP's inability to resist its own self-destructive urges as clearly as it would Mr. Clinton's.

C7 Ronald Brownstein is a Los Angeles Times columnist.

Pub Date: 12/08/98

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