This Much is Clear: Impeachment Isn’t Topic A

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

November 1, 1998

SEATTLE—Imagine Tuesday’s election without Monica Lewinsky. How different would it be?

You might have a rip-roaring debate about rules for health maintenance organizations and federal money for more teachers. You might have a big argument over taxes, some talk about the future of Social Security, perhaps a backward look at how the budget got balanced and how welfare reform was passed. There would also be some debate about campaign finance reform, tobacco and guns.

Here’s the funny thing: All over the country, in bits and pieces, that’s exactly the debate that’s happening. Impeachment hasn’t gone away, but candidates and voters have been trying to have a normal election—the strangest normal election we’ve ever had, perhaps.

The irony is that whether or not President Clinton is the issue—and in most of the House and Senate races, he doesn’t seem to be, at least not explicitly—this will still be an impeachment election.

Why? Because as soon as the vote is counted, the political parties and the press will rush to interpret the results in light of the coming impeachment debate. Unexpectedly large Republican gains will be read by the president’s foes as the opening they need to continue their pursuit of his impeachment. A good Democratic showing—defined as losses of only a few seats in the House and Senate or a pickup of any sort—will probably lead Republicans already inclined against impeachment to speak out publicly.

But only the rare candidate is telling voters that this is the choice they face. Any candidate for the House or Senate who wants to avoid a stand on impeachment can say—and many do—that they are like prospective jurors who must be open-minded. The side-stepping is bipartisan, and rooted primarily in a candidate’s sense of his or her own self-interest. Incumbents tend to be the most cautious of all.

Here in Washington state, a bellwether for national political trends since 1992 and about as far from the Beltway as you can get, you can see how impeachment politics is playing out. In a hot congressional race in the 1st District, where Republican Rick White is the incumbent, Democrat Jay Inslee got national attention for running a television ad urging that the president “be censured, not impeached” and arguing that “Rick White and Newt Gingrich shouldn’t be dragging us through this.”

White, on the other hand, argues that, as a House member, he owes the country “no less than to keep an open mind” because he may end up in a role equivalent to that of a grand juror.

In the Senate race it’s the Democratic incumbent, Patty Murray, who is playing the high-minded evasion card. Her opponent, Rep. Linda Smith, a conservative Republican, has said Clinton should resign—and, if he won’t, the House should impeach Clinton and send the case to the Senate.

So imagine that both White and Murray win, a good possibility. There’s not much of an impeachment message in that outcome—except, perhaps, that caution pays.

And then there are races in which candidates send messages without ever saying the names Bill Clinton or Monica Lewinsky. In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush dismisses the issue as irrelevant to his election when asked about it. But from Republican audiences, he always draws loud cheers when he pledges to preserve “the honor and dignity of the greatest office in the greatest state.” The Republicans listening to him think they know exactly what, and whom, he’s talking about.

At the national party level, however, the message is anything but subliminal. Last week, the GOP ran a series of ads that focused on the Lewinsky mess. Democratic strategists took the move as evidence that the Republicans were running a bit scared and wanted to rally the GOP’s base to come out on Election Day. In many districts, the strategists argued, impeachment has been taking a back seat to the issues that Democrats had hoped would be front and center: education, health care and Social Security.

Inslee’s theory is that the Republicans are worse off now than before impeachment became an issue. Clinton’s troubles, he says, lulled Republican leaders into thinking that they did not need new issues for the campaign. Without impeachment, the Republicans “would have been forced to accomplish something” in this Congress, he said.

Some party conservatives have a strikingly similar view. They have criticized the Republican leadership for acquiescing in the messy budget deal reached during Congress’s final days. The party base was given no issue other than impeachment to bring them to the polls. If Republican gains don’t materialize on Tuesday, expect a loud outcry from the right. In an editorial that ran under the headline “Budget Bimbos,” the conservative National Review offered a preview of coming attacks. The Republican Congress, editorialized the magazine, “has lacked the imagination even to conceive of a politics both principled and smart.”

The one Republican group almost certain to emerge tall and strong on Wednesday morning are the party’s governors. Wednesday will begin the beginning of the struggle between the GOP governors and the party’s congressional leadership over who gets to shape the party’s identity for the 2000 presidential election.

Most Republican governors are running as “pragmatic centrists,” one New York Republican operative put it. That’s exactly the way Clinton presents himself. “Clinton seems to grab the pragmatic center and drive home the points he wants to drive home,” the GOP operative said. “The Republican governors can do it as well.” But recent Republican presidential candidates have failed miserably in this effort, “and it’s been equally disappointing that Republicans in Washington have failed to move to the pragmatic center as well.”

(The exception that proves the rule is California’s gubernatorial race. Lt. Gov. Gray Davis is expected to become the first Democrat in 20 years to win the State House in the nation’s largest state. He ran as a pragmatic centrist, and may have as much in common with George W. Bush as he does with the man he once worked for, former Gov. Jerry Brown.)

This fall, the Republican governors have sounded many of the same themes as Clinton and the Democrats: that times are good, that budgets are in balance, that education is the No. 1 issue. In New York, Republican Gov. George Pataki has been running an ad in which the announcer delivers this message: “New York’s economy four years ago: Taxes rising. Jobs disappearing. 1.6 million people on welfare. Then George Pataki became our governor. He cut taxes by $13 billion. Created 360,000 new jobs. And reduced welfare rolls by over a half-million people. George Pataki kept his word. New York is a better place because George Pataki is our governor.”

Job creation, welfare reform, tax cuts—well, all that happened on the federal level, too. Incumbent Republicans in Congress want credit for it, but it’s hard for them to claim things are going well nationally without Clinton and the Democrats picking up some of the benefit, too—one reason why Clinton’s poll numbers have remained stubbornly high and stable.

To the extent that there is a consensus about how the election will turn out, it seems to settle on modest gains for the Republicans—a few seats in both the House and Senate. But Republican and Democratic strategists alike are wary of firm predictions because they find the public mood hard to read.

Connie Correll, Rick White’s communications director, notes that in 1992, Washington state led the Democratic trend, returning eight Democrats to the House and only one Republican. In 1994, the Republican revolution decimated the Democrats in Washington state. The 8-to-1 Democratic advantage became, overnight, a 7-to-2 Republican advantage. “This time, there just doesn’t seem to be as much focus one way or the other,” Correll said.

Ed Zuckerman, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, recalled that if you were supporting a more liberal candidate in 1994, “people slammed the door in your face.” This year, he said, the response at the doorstep is far more polite.

Bill Arthur, the regional director of the Sierra Club, shares Correll’s analysis if not her political views. “The climate out there is not particularly hostile,” he says. “It’s just not engaged.” That suggests that Clinton’s troubles have failed to ignite much indignation.

Billy Rogers, campaign manager for Gary Mauro, Bush’s Democratic opponent in the Texas governor’s race, thinks that both Democrats and Republicans will do a fine job turning out their core supporters on Tuesday. Where turnout will drop, he thinks, is among independent voters. A highly partisan year and a highly partisan impeachment fight produce a highly partisan election.

Of course, many voters who are headed to the polls aren’t doing so primarily to choose senators, representatives or governors, let alone to decide Clinton’s fate. They are showing up to vote on referendum questions. In fact, the moral uproar over the Lewinsky scandal is obscuring the rise of a series of new moral issues in American politics—prominent among them gambling and assisted suicide.

Two states, California and Missouri, will vote on referendums that will determine the future of legalized gambling. In Alabama, Republican Gov. Fob James is in danger because his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman, is pushing a state lottery to finance college scholarships. Gambling is also an issue in the South Carolina and Maryland governor’s aces.

Not only is assisted suicide on the ballot in Michigan, but so is Democratic gubernatorial candidate Geoffrey Fieger, the lawyer for assisted-suicide practitioner Jack Kevorkian. The assisted suicide referendum is almost certainly going down to defeat, and Fieger is equally likely to get trounced, in art for some of the nasty things he said about religious people while he was working for Kevorkian.

Whatever happens in Michigan, it is clear that these emerging moral issues are creating new and complicated alliances. The anti-gambling cause brings together Christian conservatives who oppose gambling on moral grounds and liberals who fear the social impact of the spread of casinos. Assisted suicide has not—at least not yet—created the clear-cut partisan divisions that abortion has. It happens that one politician who favors abortion rights but opposes assisted suicide is named William Jefferson Clinton.

Because of Lewinsky, interpreting Tuesday’s results will be problematic. How much of this vote, we’ll wonder, was due to Clinton’s troubles? How much to the other issues? How much to voter indifference?

Voters, of course, are always ready with surprises, and it’s possible that this election will be more decisive than anticipated. But it is likely that there will be no verdict on Clinton’s impeachment, no verdict on the realignment of American politics, and little change in the balance of forces.

But to talk of this as a “status quo election” misses the point, because there is no such thing. Even elections that don’t seem to change anything contain the seeds of transformation. In 1978, the Democrats held both houses of Congress, but conservative victories in key races heralded the coming Reagan revolution.

This election is likely to mark a shift in power in the Republican Party from Congress to the GOP governors. It will also intensify ideological battles among Republicans in Congress. Moderates, relabeled “pragmatists,” will look to the governors for support.

It will give Democrats hope that their core issues are more appealing than anything the Republicans have on offer. But given Republican strength in the states, Democrats will engage in their own agonizing reappraisals over why their presidential victories cannot be translated into renewed strength at the grass-roots level.

And, absent unanticipated Republican gains, President Clinton will be able to say that a long list of other issues mattered more to voters than did his own transgressions. That’s why an election that isn’t about impeachment will still be the impeachment election.