Let's consider a potential scenario for the end game. President Clinton, having confessed to lying shamelessly for the past seven months, finally begins to drop in the polls. The people are tired of his bullshit and numb to his pain.
Congress is sufficiently emboldened by this shift in public opinion -- and by Republican gains in the November elections -- to begin impeachment proceedings when its members return in January 1999. Rather than become the first president to be successfully impeached, he reluctantly resigns.
Clinton's abdication leaves independent counsel Kenneth Starr without prospect of future employment. His appointment at Pepperdine University has been withdrawn, after all, and his old partners at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm are not exactly clamoring for the return of the most unpopular man in America. But the indefatigable Starr sees a continuing mission for a figure of outstanding rectitude such as himself, particularly so long as there are Democrats in high office.
So before the Clintons have finished packing, Starr applies to Attorney General Janet Reno for permission to extend his investigation to President Al Gore. All those dubious campaign contributions demand investigative scrutiny (and didn't Gore confess that he smoked pot back when he was in college?).
Reno would never allow that, of course. The attorney general denies Starr's application and tries to fire him as well, but she is overruled on both counts by the panel of three right-wing judges that administers the independent counsel statute. The judges rubber stamp the Gore probe, which quickly results in a report recommending impeachment and immunity for numerous Buddhist nuns. (Getting Clinton took four years and $40 million, but there's no stopping Starr when he's on a roll.)
In accordance with his duty, Starr swiftly transmits a packet of scorching material on President Gore to the House of Representatives, specifically to Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde. Newt Gingrich is still hanging on as speaker in the new Congress, although there are recurrent rumblings from the rump faction that has wanted to oust him for almost two years. As we shall see, there's more than one way for the House to rid itself of its vexing leader.
Being a creative thinker who sees opportunity within crisis, Gingrich pounces to impeach the new president. The nomination of Gore's vice presidential choice, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is permanently frozen in the Senate, leaving the speaker next in succession should Gore be forced out.
Meanwhile, both Starr and Hyde are quietly reminded that a President Gingrich eventually would need to fill one or two vacancies on the Supreme Court.
The universally respected Hyde opens hearings on the impeachment of Al Gore, preparing a resolution to be sent to the House floor, where the speaker eagerly awaits. (The unthinkable alternative to Gingrich, who would himself be vulnerable to a Starr-style inquisition, is the ancient Senate President Pro Tem Strom Thurmond -- No. 4 in constitutional succession -- and the independent counsel already has issued a subtle threat to probe Thurmond's legendary libido, even if that means calling a parade of little old ladies before the grand jury.)
Only a party-line vote now stands between the portly Georgian and his ultimate goal, the White House. The clerk of the House calls the roll, eliciting the first in a series of doleful "Ayes." Our long national nightmare is ending, while another is about to begin ...
Sounds like a hallucination, doesn't it? Nothing to be afraid of, right? Except that in some respects, the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich may be here already -- as we shall see when the struggle over the budget resumes in September.
Yes, the budget -- that endless, boring stack of spreadsheets that does nothing but determine our present and future priorities. While the nation remains transfixed by the Days of Our Lives/Law and Order episode unfolding in the White House, the executive and legislative branches have been heading toward another fiscal showdown like the one that shut down government in 1995-96.
Neither the balanced budget nor even projected surpluses have changed the continuing clash over money between Clinton and Gingrich. The president wants to spend significant amounts on child health, public education and national service programs; the speaker would rather spend the same money on capital gains and estate tax cuts that would mostly benefit the rich. The administration's budget proposals would expand health insurance for children and reserve most of the surplus in the coming years to help underwrite Social Security for the baby boomers. The House budget resolution proposes to shortchange Social Security (while hoping to privatize the system altogether, thus creating a windfall for Wall Street).
The White House is currently threatening to veto nearly all of the appropriations bills that keep the government running because they contain offensive provisions of some kind. Among these are cuts in environmental spending, and even a "gag order" to prevent educational efforts about global warming. The defense appropriations bill would require the president to get congressional authorization before taking military action abroad, presumably precluding the kind of anti-terrorist attack he undertook the other day. And the president has personally promised to veto an omnibus domestic spending bill that would cut hundreds of millions of dollars from child literacy, school reform and Headstart programs.