Impeachment's bad taste will linger


WASHINGTON -- After a year of a farcical debate over Monica Lewinsky, we have finally reached the bottom line. It is not a pretty picture.

Once again, President Clinton has walked away from the kind of political wreck that would bury most politicians. But he has survived at a terrible cost in the way he is viewed by political enemies and friends.

And he has survived at what may be a terrible cost in the ability of the system to function effectively in the next two years.

The members of Congress also have paid a heavy price in terms of the way so many Americans view all of our political institutions.

The embarrassment suffered by the Republicans has been exacerbated by their failure to gain even a simple majority of the Senate for conviction of the president on either article, let alone the two-thirds needed to bring his removal from office. The message to the voters is that they have been right all along. This has been a foolish exercise that should have been avoided at all costs. Instead, the House Republicans allowed themselves to be used as the instruments of a thoroughly discredited but zealous lawyer, independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

A losing effort

And then the Senate Republicans -- most of them, at least -- allowed themselves to be caught up in the business of trying to avoid further embarrassment to their party colleagues in the House when the wiser course might have been simply to vote for dismissal. There was never any chance that 67 senators would vote for conviction, and everyone knew it from the first day.

But the impetus for the Republicans came from more than Mr. Starr. As the fine print of the opinion polls indicated, there was a substantial minority of socially conservative voters who believed that Mr. Clinton had committed serious crimes and should not be allowed to escape unpunished. And that was a view unquestionably shared by many of the Republicans who pursued impeachment.

They knew, as did their Democratic colleagues, that Mr. Clinton not only committed gross violations of behavior with a subordinate in the White House, but also then lied about it to everyone who inquired and tried his best to stifle the story.

Thus, in the end the president who blamed blind partisanship among the Republicans was saved by the blind partisanship of the Democrats who held their noses and voted solidly against the two articles -- while 10 Republicans defected on one article and five on the other. It was an experience for those Democratic senators that is not likely to leave them kindly disposed to their leader in the White House.

For Mr. Clinton, the first imperative now is to rebuild some trust with Congress as well as with the public. Although the voters give the president high approval ratings for his job performance, they scorn him on his character. And members of Congress now have every reason to view him with distrust.

Political trust

As a practical matter, the kind of political trust required now may be impossible to achieve. Republicans know their hold on the House is shaky enough so that they need to project a positive image on critical issues before the 2000 election.

But they also know that, whatever they may say in the immediate aftermath of the impeachment trial, neither Mr. Clinton nor the Democrats in Congress will make it easy to find the high ground on issues as sensitive as Social Security and Medicare. The impeachment process is over but the bad taste lingers.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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