THIS week, Republicans in the House of Representatives will decide whether they will aid the election of Al Gore as president in the year 2000.
That's right. Thursday's impeachment vote isn't about Bill Clinton and Monicagate. Nor is it about morals and ethics.
It certainly isn't about adhering to the narrow grounds for impeachment so cautiously laid down by the Founding Fathers.
No, this is pure politics. Conservative Republican politics. The ring-leader isn't Newt Gingrich, the outgoing House speaker, or Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston, the next speaker, but Texan Tom DeLay, the No. 3 Republican and one of the GOP's extreme right-wingers.
He wants to get President Clinton. He's made no secret of that for years. He and his fellow ideologues see themselves -- as does independent counsel Kenneth Starr -- as avenging angels. To heck with popular sentiment that strongly rejects impeachment. As Barry Goldwater, a hero of the conservative movement, once said, "I'd rather be right than president."
This era's conservative Republicans would rather continue their unwavering pursuit of Mr. Clinton -- because in their hearts they know he is pure evil -- than heed the electorate.
If that means losing the 2000 presidential election, well, so be it.
It's a prime example of the GOP's tendency toward committing hara-kiri.
Maryland's Republicans have been doing this for years. Last month, right-wing conservatives refused to vote for Ellen Sauerbrey because -- heaven forbid! -- she tried to moderate some of her positions. They'd rather teach her a lesson than help her become governor. They succeeded.
By swinging far to the right over the years, the state GOP made sure it stood no chance of winning elections. Not when two-thirds of the electorate remains planted firmly in the center.
No wonder Maryland hasn't elected a Republican governor in 32 years, and prospects for a statewide Republican win anytime soon look bleak.
Now national Republicans are swinging far to the right. Based on poll after opinion poll, Americans don't like it.
Here's what DeLay & Co. want to achieve: Another year of seamy tales of sexual misadventures -- which have nothing to do with governing the country.
A Senate trial would be long and messy. No sham hearings like the House charade. This time, we'll get all the X-rated details -- day after day after day on live TV.
If you think the American public is fed up with Mr. Starr and House Republicans, wait until they catch the public airing of a philandering president in the Senate.
Most of the public knows -- and probably most senators know -- that all this doesn't come close to reaching constitutional standards for impeachment.
Even more outrageous is the fact that every senator knows the votes aren't there to impeach. It's not even close.
What House Republicans are doing isn't likely to go over well with the populace, which already has made up its mind: The president is a louse, but what's that got to do with his job performance?
Has he engaged in treason? Has he tried to subvert the government, a la Richard Nixon? Has he lied about government activities a la Ronald Reagan? Has he intentionally misled us into war a la Lyndon Johnson?
Where are the "high crimes and misdemeanors"? Hiding an extramarital affair? Lying about his sexual exploits?
In trying to discredit Mr. Clinton, House Republicans are discrediting themselves. Just as folks in Maryland sent a message to Washington by voting heavily Democratic this year, the nation may send such a message in 2000.
Mr. Clinton won't be on the ballot. Trying to tar Mr. Gore with the sins of the president won't wash. Voters are smarter than that.
Who will be blamed if government grinds to a halt while the impeachment trial proceeds for months on end? Who will be blamed for dragging the country through this sexual thicket again?
Republicans seem fixated on the notion that if they shout "impeachment" and "liar" loud enough and long enough that public perceptions will change. It hasn't happened yet, and it doesn't appear likely to occur.
It is a policy borne out of frustration and ideological arrogance. Republicans refuse to heed the people. It cost them a handful of congressional seats this year. In 2000, it may cost them the presidency and control of the House.
This week's vote isn't about Mr. Clinton. It's about the future of the Republican Party.
Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.
Pub Date: 12/16/98