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In this intense political war, everybody winds up losing Americans face prospect of several ugly months of trial in the Senate @


WASHINGTON -- It has been political warfare with no winners. All those involved -- Republicans, Democrats, Congress, the president, the press and the voters -- have been losers.

Both sides walk away from the impeachment of Bill Clinton with bitterness and anger as they face the possibility and perhaps the prospect of several ugly months ahead while the Senate deals with his case.

Nor is it the usual sham anger that politicians employ for public consumption, then quickly put aside once an issue is settled. As one principal in this episode put it the other day: "This is real. There is real bad feeling here."

This has not been the case in other political controversies that have reached a similar level of white-hot intensity in the past two generations. The guiding principle for most successful U.S. politicians is that there is a difference between enemies and adversaries and that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.

National consensus

When the House Judiciary Committee cast its vote for impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon 24 years ago, there was a national consensus that his transgressions merited the action. That was evident not only in the bipartisan vote but in the fact that a delegation of leading Republicans -- Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott and House Minority Leader John Rhodes -- went down Pennsylvania Avenue to tell Nixon it was time to resign.

At the most superficial level, the Democrats were the "winners" in Watergate. The disgrace of the Republican president contributed to a significant Democratic gain in the midterm elections that same November and set the stage for the election of a Democrat from outside of Washington, Jimmy Carter, two years later.

But thoughtful leaders in both parties agreed the real winners were Americans in general. The committee produced enough evidence against Nixon to reassure most, if not all, doubters. The system had worked and had emerged essentially unscathed despite all the hand-wringing over "the trauma of Watergate."

The political system also worked in dealing with two other issues that caused searing divisions in the country -- civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

Protest and violence

In the first case, it took years of protest and violence, but the country finally reached a broad consensus that federal legislation was needed to redress the wrongs of the past. Again, there were many winners when the Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The same could be said of the way the system worked, finally, in bringing an end to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War after years of bitterness and turmoil. Not everyone agreed with the change in policy. But it was a bipartisan product, and there was a national consensus behind it.

In this case, by contrast, we have had what House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt called "the politics of smear and slash and burn" leaving deep and lasting stains on all parties involved.

In their pursuit of Clinton, the Republicans have demonstrated a partisan zeal that has caused a steady and sharp decline in their approval ratings in opinion polls. A new CBS News survey found Americans saying 61 percent to 28 percent that Republicans are "out of touch" with the popular will.

But if the Republicans are losers because of their image as mindless partisans, it is hard to argue that the Democrats are winners because they may be able to use the issue in the next House elections. Instead, thoughtful Democrats admit at least privately that they suffer by being forced to defend a president who has put himself in an essentially indefensible position.

The awkward position of the Democrats was obvious all through the two days of House debate as one after another of these "defenders" of the president excoriated him for conduct that was, as one member put it, "deplorable, reprehensible and immoral."

Clinton's defenders were reduced to their argument that because a sexual affair was at the root of the problem, it was too trivial. As Vice President Al Gore put it, "You don't impeach the president over something like this."

The president has emerged as a loser on several levels. He has the dubious distinction of being the first chief executive impeached in 130 years. And he has been shown to be essentially naked to his enemies.

His fellow Democrats may prop him up by sticking with him during a Senate trial. But they have not forgiven him for lying to them about the Monica Lewinsky affair in the first place. And many Democrats are privately outraged by the legalistic and sometimes patronizing way that Clinton has dealt with the investigators.

The result is a poisonous political climate that makes it plain how difficult, if not impossible, it may be for the president to pursue any agenda of sensitive issues in the final two years of his term.

Media tarnished

The news media have also emerged from this process with a badly tarnished image. That was ensured when Robert L. Livingston decided to resign from Congress rather than serve as speaker of the House after being forced by the media to confess publicly to extramarital affairs.

Livingston was being pursued by a pornographic magazine, Hustler, rather than by the so-called "mainstream" media -- meaning leading newspapers and the television networks. But what Livingston understood was that these days, anything published anywhere quickly finds its way into the mainstream on one pretext or another.

In his final appeal against impeaching the president, Gephardt urged the House not to capitulate to what he called "the negative forces consuming our political system and our country." But if the polls are correct, most Americans think that has already happened.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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