As Republicans in the House of Representatives were rushing to their impeachment party, I stood outside the Capitol with the Washington bureau chief of a prominent newspaper. "Can't anyone stop this?" he wailed. "They're not really going to put us through all this, are they? Can't some statesman like Bob Dole or Gerald Ford step in and arrange a way out? I keep looking for a reason to write that common sense is going to prevail, but I can't find any."
The reason he can't write that story is that it's now children's hour in the House of Representatives. The Republican Clinton-haters are going for instant gratification. They taste blood, and they don't care what kind of mess they make in the process. They don't care that the polls indicate the public doesn't want Clinton to be bounced for his semi-sex and full lies. They're not bothered by the fact that for only the third time in the republic's history an impeachment inquiry is being launched, but that this time its unprecedented focus is presidential prevarication about a consensual relationship.
No, they're just voting with their bile. And after the inquiry is completed -- whenever that may be -- they're going to impeach the man and send his sorry ass over to the Senate. Then, it will be up to the "adults" of that house to determine if public opinion will be defied -- assuming it stays more or less where it is now -- and a president is ousted for covering up an affair (as opposed to authorizing a break-in, conducting a secret war, orchestrating covert arms dealings or engaging in campaign finance skulduggery).
My guestimate is that about half of the Republicans in the House are obsessed with getting Clinton. They have an emotional desire to see him pummeled, emasculated, discredited and then hanged. Perhaps it's because they despise his slippery ways, or oppose his ideology (whatever that may be), or believe that a joint-puffing, war-protesting, skirt-chasing, Hollywood-cavorting boomer never deserved to hold this near-holy office in the first place.
The rest of the Republicans probably agree with the premise that impeachment is an effective electoral strategy. The coming congressional contests are expected to set a record for low turnout. In such a campaign, die-hard party voters -- what's known as the "base" of a party -- are all that matter.
Proceeding with impeachment is akin to tossing red meat to the GOP's base voters. It will rev them up and propel them to the polls. The general public opinion polls don't count, for most of the people in those surveys are not likely to vote. Wishful Democrats have started talking about an anti-impeachment backlash that may strike on election day. But for now that seems the equivalent of whistling past a train wreck. It's one thing for Americans to be pissed off that this circus won't shut down; it's another for them to wake up on Election Day, trundle to the polls and vote for a Democratic candidate because they're disgusted by Monicagate. The better bet is that impeachment will motivate GOP-friendly voters much more than Democratic-leaning voters.
So for psychological and political reasons, the House Republicans have launched the ultimate attack on a president. They can do so with impunity; of the 435 House seats at stake in this election, only 50 or so are close -- and few of those involve a Republican incumbent. There may be some House GOPsters who, for reasons of law or principle, have reservations about impeachment. But they cannot argue their case without risking civil war within their caucus. If such Republicans even exist in the House, they are keeping far out of sight for now. It would require a fair amount of courage and spine -- not qualities that come to mind when discussing politicians -- for any Republican to side with the president and take on the mob.
So the impeachment express, now that it's out of the station, isn't likely to turn around. It's simply inconceivable that after the GOP holds many months of hearings -- and no one believes House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde when he says the inquiry can be completed by the end of the year -- this band of Republicans will fail to vote for impeachment. After all, they will be able to say that they are not actually voting to dethrone Clinton but simply to allow the Senate to consider the case against him.
What an escape route! These eager-beaver House Republicans will literally never have to pronounce Clinton guilty. Most hail from districts where an anti-Clinton stand will not cost them their jobs, so they can vote their desire and not pay a price.
That's why common sense will not intervene to bring this to an end, not while the House Republicans are in control. Once this matter moves to the Senate -- and that might not occur until well into next year -- there could be some room for maneuvering: A plea bargain here, a censure deal there. Will the Republicans in that august body really want to conduct a trial in which Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp and the like take the stand? Will the public tolerate that kind of spectacle after the interminably unpopular Starr inquiry, succeeded by the upcoming months-long House rehash?
If public opinion remains where it is today -- which, of course, no one can predict -- the Republican senators will be the ones who have to decide how far to steer their party away from the popular sentiment. They will be the ones to judge whether the results of the 1996 election -- which are still strongly supported by the public -- should be cast aside. They will have the responsibility of declaring for all time that Clinton's despicable behavior constituted a precedent-setting threat to the Constitution and the country. And, should they decide to toss the bum out, they will still need to muster 67 votes in the 100-member chamber -- something they could not do today.
But those are decisions that grown-ups will have to make. For now, the House Republicans are too busy acting out their roles in our national dysfunctional political family.