GOP faces payback for impeachment in 2000 election; Republicans need to make concessions to build a legislative record; THE IMPEACHMENT VERDICT


WASHINGTON -- In politics, the first rule is what goes around comes around. So the operative question in the wake of the impeachment trial is how much the Republicans will suffer for their mistake in trying to drive President Clinton from office.

"The one thing we know for sure," said Peter Hart, a poll-taker for Democrats, "is that there won't be a single Republican who will mention this in the year 2000."

Then, tongue in cheek, he added: "There may be some Democrats who will mention it."

A key contest will be the one for control of the House, which the Republicans won in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. Democrats need only five more seats, and that number may shrink with special elections later this year to fill vacant seats. And, whatever the number, Republican strategists agree it is their candidates who will be on the defensive.

Vin Weber, an astute Republican conservative who used to serve in the House, said Republicans are "sick and tired of defending themselves" and want most of all "not to fight this over and over again."

"Any bitterness on the Republican side," Weber said, "is outweighed by the desire to get beyond the issue."

Tom King, a consultant who works for Democratic candidates, said Republican moderates are particularly vulnerable and are trying to put some distance between themselves and the impeachment fiasco. This is a reflection of both the opinion polls and the election returns last November that showed the Monica Lewinsky issue was poison in districts not dominated by extreme social and cultural conservatives. "Anybody raised their head on this did take a shot," King pointed out.

Political professionals in both parties cited the case of Republican Rep. Anne Northup of Kentucky, who attacked Clinton on the issue and encountered a near-fatal backlash in the election last November. "She made it, but she dropped like a rock," one said.

Because the campaign for control of the House will be the prime arena for lawmakers in 2000, strategists in both parties expect the Republicans to be so eager to pass legislation that they will make significant concessions in dealing with the Democrats and the White House. "I think there's an opening there in the short term," Weber said. The Democrats, he suggested, "may be able to do a lot of things and probably get fairly good terms doing them."

The critical question, however, is whether the Democrats will want to reach agreements with the Republicans, now that they have the leverage.

"The Republicans have dug themselves into a pretty deep hole," said Mark Mellman, a poll-taker for Democrats. "The question is do they have the time and the tools to dig themselves out."

It is his guess, Mellman added, that the Democrats "will keep the bar high" before accepting compromise on legislative initiatives.

Another Democrat, speaking privately, summed it up succinctly: "There's no reason for the Democrats to make deals. They [the Republicans] need deals so bad the Democrats may be able to get anything they want."

The main problem for Democrats in the House, some veterans believe, is the danger of Clinton making agreements on terms less liberal than they would prefer and could win. The White House agreement with the Republicans on welfare reform just before the 1996 election still sticks in the craw of some House Democrats.

The current backlash against the Republicans may also be felt in ways not immediately apparent. The Republicans may face added problems recruiting strong candidates in House races and may suffer from more retirements by discouraged incumbents than would normally be the case. And some Republicans fear their campaign money will dry up if their control of the House seems likely to be lost.

There is little expectation, however, that the impeachment issue will be a significant factor in the presidential campaign, except to whatever extent it puts Vice President Al Gore on the defensive as the anointed candidate of the president. Gore's challenger in the Democratic primaries, former Sen. Bill Bradley, may enjoy some marginal benefit from being seen as not part of the White House mess. But no one expects him to use the issue against Gore directly.

Clinton is viewed as someone who can raise money for his fellow Democrats, but not as a leader with whom Democrats will want to identify themselves in 2000. Lame ducks rarely have much direct influence on elections. Even President Ronald Reagan failed to save the Senate for his party in 1986. He campaigned personally for five vulnerable Republican incumbents in the South, all of whom were defeated.

But, as Democratic consultant Ray Strother noted, "there's a lot of time between now and the next election."

The early indicators were not promising for those looking for a new era of good will in Congress. The last vote sustaining President Clinton for another two years in the White House was still echoing through the Capitol when House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt issued a statement accusing the Republicans of pursuing a "vendetta" against him for the past year.

That was followed by a statement from Jim Nicholson, the Republican national chairman, arguing that the question now is whether Clinton will make amends or pursue "a misguided, selfish and self-destructive effort at revenge" against the Republicans.

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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