Why the GOP's Gambling on Impeachment

The strangest thing about the impeachment controversy is how little of it is being driven by politics. Why are Republicans pursuing the conviction and removal of a popular President? It makes no political sense. Why did Senate Democrats sign on to a bipartisan deal to hold a trial? That also defies political calculation.

There's a certain heedlessness to what congressional Republicans are doing. ''Who could possibly try to argue that Republicans are trying to do this thing for political reasons?'' GOP pollster Bill McInturff asked a Washington Post reporter. In a democracy, it's not smart to defy public opinion. Public favorability toward the GOP is now at its lowest level since Watergate.

Don't they remember what happened to them when they veered off to the right and nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964? No. They remember what happened to them when they stood on principle, with Ronald Reagan in 1980, and with Newt Gingrich in 1994. But those were very different political moments, when the Democrats were discredited and the country was longing for leaders of conviction and principle.

Republicans seem to be making the same mistake Democrats made in the 1970s and '80s. They're abandoning the center, just as Democrats did when they veered too far to the left. The GOP is fighting a culture war most Americans do not want to fight. The GOP Congress seems determined to provoke a crisis and tear the country apart. What are Republicans thinking?

It's especially dangerous for Republicans to defy the electorate, because their congressional majority is so vulnerable: They have the smallest House majority since 1932, and the heavily GOP Senate Class of '94 faces its first re-election test. Republicans are gambling everything they have on impeachment and conviction. One bad roll of the dice, and they could lose it all--the White House, Congress, everything.

So why are they doing it? Is the GOP being held hostage by Clinton-haters? Not really. Even popular and safe House Republicans, such as Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, have turned against the President. So have moderate Republicans, who are not usually swayed by conservative activists. The explanation appears to be personal. The President's refusal to admit that he lied under oath. His dismissive responses to the 81 questions put to him by the House Judiciary Committee. And most outrageous of all, the pep rally the President staged with House Democrats on the White House lawn hours after he got impeached.

The Republican goal is to make sure Clinton cannot claim vindication at the end of this process. They mean to see him disgraced, if not removed. Even if it means considerable political risk to themselves.

Senate Republicans are trying to control the damage by making the President's trial as bipartisan as possible. They see the consequences of the pitched partisan battle that was waged last year in the House. In 1998, the battle line was Republicans vs. Democrats. In 1999, the GOP wants to draw a different line: the Senate vs. the President.

That is very dangerous for the White House. A bipartisan trial could lend new seriousness to the charges and lead the public to re-examine them--especially if witnesses are called. If the Senate does decide to call witnesses, the White House wants it to be done on a party-line vote. Then the Administration can dismiss the trial as a partisan vendetta.

By signing on to the bipartisan deal, Democrats ''perhaps gave up a tactical advantage,'' one Democrat admitted to The New York Times. He added: ''Republicans had more to lose than we did. If we had held firm on witnesses, they would have looked like partisan movers.'' So why did Senate Democrats do it? Because loyalty to the Senate meant more to them than loyalty to this President. Republican leaders shrewdly called forth institutional loyalty by holding a bipartisan caucus in the Old Senate Chamber, a setting that stirred the members' sense of history.

That, plus the determination not to allow the Senate to look like the House. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the anointed guardian of Senate tradition, warned his fellow Senators: ''The House has fallen into the black pit of partisan self-indulgence. The Senate is teetering on the brink of that same pit.''

What about Democratic Senators' loyalty to their President? ''Too bad,'' Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. was quoted as saying when asked about White House complaints: ''They have no say.'' Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy's response: ''We're not here to defend either the White House or the House of Representatives.''

The ultimate test of bipartisanship will come on the question of calling witnesses. Democrats hope Republican Senators' resolve to call witnesses will weaken after two weeks of mute observation--something that, for United States Senators, amounts to an unnatural act. Republicans believe that Democrats will see witnesses as essential to the integrity of the process and will vote to protect Senate prerogatives--even if it means considerable political risk to themselves and to their President.

Which is why, during the next few weeks, President Clinton needs to display uncharacteristic sensitivity to congressional prerogatives, notably in his handling of the State of the Union speech. Defiance of Congress is a punishable offense.

William Schneider is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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