Hellfire from the right

The right wing is newly energized against Clinton.

Published August 20, 1998 8:15AM (EDT)

For politically wired religious factions, President Clinton's
attempt to 'fess up Monday night to his "improper relationship" with Monica
Lewinsky was a blessed event, a divine call to arms. Early Tuesday,
the armies of the right began to march.

Sen. John Ashcroft -- the Missouri Republican, gospel singer and
lay preacher who would be president -- called for Clinton to resign. "The
country cannot and should not be forced to engage issues with a discredited
president who cannot be completely trusted," said the Christian right's point man in the Senate.

Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, berated Clinton
for "abuse of a White House intern, disregard for the dignity of his
office," and suggested, "It is time for the president to finally act
honorably by leaving the stage."

It might be tempting to dismiss these comments as predictable
rants from conservative extremists. But the fact is that the right wing has
been gaining political muscle on Capitol Hill and across the country, and
Clinton's sexual infidelities and dissemblings are certain to give it new
strength. Wednesday morning, in fact, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay joined his voice with the right-wing chorus, calling for Clinton's resignation, a call that was echoed for the first time by a Democrat, Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania.

"The Clinton-haters will be emboldened, of course, but now the
moral outrage wing will make its presence felt," says Cal Thomas, a
conservative columnist. "For years these people have been forced to accept
and tolerate things that gross them out. It's payback time for them."

The payback will come on two fronts: in Congress as it takes up
independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on his four-year investigation of
the Clintons, which could lead to impeachment hearings; and in this fall's
midterm elections.

Even with Clinton's popularity plummeting in the polls following
his admission that he had been lying for months about his affair with
former White House intern Lewinsky, there's still a strong reluctance in
Congress to impeach Clinton based on Starr's report, especially if its
strongest charges involve the president's sex life. "You don't impeach him
for a peccadillo," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde said right
after the Lewinsky scandal came to light in January.

"If it's a weak report, then this thing's over very, very fast,"
says a Democratic staff member. "It's unlikely a majority would vote to
refer charges of impeachment for lying about a consensual sexual
relationship. Obstruction of justice -- yes."

"They're [Congress] thrashing it out right now," says Thomas. "Will they
do the principled thing and live by the letter of the law? Or will they do
the political thing and leave him twisting in the wind with his briefs tied
around his neck?"

Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values
Coalition, is profoundly interested in which course Congress takes. He
heads a Washington political action organization that seeks to turn
churches into electoral machines. The morning after Clinton testified
before the federal grand jury and later addressed the nation, Sheldon met
with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and came away feeling confident that
Clinton would face a harsh judgment.

"I believe Congress will act when they have the document in their
hands," Sheldon says, implying that Gingrich anticipates enough
incriminating material from Starr to warrant impeachment hearings, at the

But what if the House decides not to act in a way that satisfies
Sheldon and other devout Christian activists?

"We would need to use that to bring to Congress new members who are
committed to moral values and beliefs," says Sheldon. "It would have an
immediate impact on upcoming Senate and House races."

Take, for instance, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer's race to
protect her seat against a surprisingly strong challenge from Republican
Matthew Fong.

"Boxer hung her hat on Clinton," Sheldon says. "How can she defend
him every time Fong brings Lewinsky up?"

Likewise, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, a liberal Democrat from
Illinois, "is going to have a problem," Sheldon warns.

Sheldon's warning may not be an empty threat.

The Traditional Values Coalition represents 40,000 churches across
the nation, according to Sheldon. He says they are wired to his national
headquarters by an online fax system that pumps out position papers and
exhortations on issues involving homosexuality, abortion and now the
Clinton investigation as it reaches Congress.

"We want our people to turn out to vote," Sheldon says.

Sheldon is hardly a lone actor. He's one of the leaders of the new
religious right that's taking over where Jerry Falwell left off. Its
leaders include Gary Bauer and James Dobson, leader of Focus on the Family,
a $112 million-a-year ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo. Dobson reaches from
3 million to 5 million listeners a day by radio. The new religious right
leaders make Falwell look like a benign country preacher.

Dobson's burgeoning evangelical ministry is untested in electoral
politics, but his power is evident. Shortly after Dobson came to Washington
earlier this summer, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called homosexuality
a sin and compared it to alcoholism. Then bills started moving through
Congress that would overturn Clinton's executive order barring
discrimination against homosexuals in federal hiring; another would deny
federal funds to cities that require specific employer benefits to domestic
partners. Dobson has sent nine priorities to Congress that would strip
funding for Planned Parenthood, ban human cloning and fetal tissue research
and eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.

Dobson wasn't available for comment on Clinton's infidelity confession, but months ago he stood
shoulder to shoulder with Bauer in lecturing Republicans for being slow to
draw moral lines against Clinton. Dobson, Bauer and Ashcroft have been
Clinton's most harsh critics in the prolonged scandal, indicting him long
before he acknowledged his relationship with Lewinsky.

Now the forces they represent are in full-throated roar, and the religious battalions marching on Washington won't be satisfied until they have Clinton's head. "No man is above the law," the Christian Coalition declared in a
statement following Clinton's Monday night speech, "and it is the Christian Coalition's fervent hope that Congress will apply this principle and meet their sworn obligation, should they be
called upon to do so."

In other words, impeach Clinton or face the wrath of the right.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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