January 20, 1999

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The GOP’s Endless ‘End Game’:

Ever since the Nov. 3 elections -- and the surprising setbacks dealt the Republican Party -- the logical political wisdom pointed to the GOP making as graceful an exit from the Bill Clinton impeachment controversy as possible.

But that has not been the course that congressional Republicans have chosen to follow. Instead of recognizing the odds against them and folding their cards, they simply slid more chips onto the table.

First, Rep. Henry Hyde’s Judiciary Committee approved four articles of impeachment. Then, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, kept Republican “moderates” in line and drove two articles through the House and delivered them to the Senate.

There, despite clear poll evidence of public disgust with the process, the Senate Republicans followed the lead of their House brethren and raised the stakes even more.

The gamble was made despite daunting numbers against them. With no gain in their 55-45 Senate majority, the Republicans would need to lure away 12 Democrats for the 67 votes to convict, a possibility that seemed highly unlikely.

Yet, given the right's determination to crush Clinton, the GOP actions beg the question: How do the Republicans expect to win? Is there an "end game" or are the Republicans caught in some political version of "Jumanji"?

One victory scenario holds that a trial with witnesses could lead to either a sudden or gradual turning of the political tide. But short of a major reversal in testimony -- such as Clinton's secretary Betty Currie declaring that she's been lying for the past year -- the prospects for a Perry Mason moment seem scant.

A second possibility is that special prosecutor Kenneth Starr can pull off a dramatic legal maneuver outside the impeachment proceedings. But even an unprecedented indictment of a sitting president -- an action that some Starr advisors insist would be constitutional -- still would not guarantee a bipartisan vote to convict Clinton on the Monica Lewinsky case.

Indeed, the numbers -- both in the Senate and in public opinion polls -- look so bad for the Republicans that only the most extreme actions would give the GOP a realistic chance for a full-scale victory.

One such unlikely move would be to reduce the number of eligible Democratic votes by excluding some senators for violating their oaths of impartiality. If the eligible Senate votes were reduced to 82, by excluding 18 Democrats, then 55 votes would be enough to convict.

Though farfetched, a “trial balloon” for excluding Democratic senators was floated by some conservatives. The argument has been made that Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has a conflict of interest because her daughter is married to Hillary Clinton's brother. Others have objected to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., because he opposed impeachment while a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

The Washington Times, a conservative newspaper funded by South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon, has given front-page play to GOP complaints that Democrats have invalidated their oaths by commenting on the near-certainty of Clinton's acquittal.

"That's a matter of concern to all of us," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, was quoted as saying. "That's prejudging the case."

"It's inappropriate for senators who will be serving as a jury to come out and prejudge the evidence prior to the trial," added Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, one of the House prosecutors. [WT, Jan. 13, 1999]

The Washington Times followed up those Republican complaints with another front-page story disclosing that more than a dozen Senate Democrats met with House Democratic lawyers who had worked against impeachment. "The gathering occurred just one day after senior GOP senators accused Democrats of having concluded that Mr. Clinton should be acquitted," the Times reported. [WT, Jan. 14, 1999]

Since presidential impeachment trials have very limited precedents, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a conservative Republican, conceivably could rule on a motion that these and other Democrats, in effect, excluded themselves by demonstrating bias in favor of Clinton and thus violated their oaths.

Rulings of the chair can be sustained or overturned by simple majorities. So, the Republicans theoretically could back such a ruling. Still, the likelihood of strong-arm tactics like exclusion of senators would be an extreme step, almost unthinkable given the Senate's tradition of collegiality. It also would provoke a public backlash against what would look like a political coup d'etat.

In the official GOP response to Clinton’s State of the Union address on Jan. 19, Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., offered a jarring reassurance that the impeachment battle would not reach the severity of a full-fledged coup.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our country is not in crisis,” Dunn stated. “There are no tanks in the street.”

With Clinton’s conviction seemingly beyond reach, the Republicans simply might use their majority power to control the scope of the trial. Any effort by Clinton to compel testimony that would put GOP tactics in a bad light -- by widening the focus to include Starr's investigation or the well-financed conservative anti-Clinton operations -- could be blocked as irrelevant.

"We'd still have to vote," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said about a possible Clinton attempt to compel Starr's testimony. "We are not going to let this spin out of control."

By restricting the defense, the Republicans would keep Clinton's personal behavior under the spotlight and hope to pick off a few Democrats to vote for conviction. That would create the appearance of a bipartisan majority for Clinton's removal, even though the vote would fall short of two-thirds to convict.

Conservatives then could complain about another narrow escape by "Slick Willie." The Republicans could use Clinton’s “disgrace” to damage Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

Still, the whiff of brown-shirt tactics is never too far below the surface of Republican politics these days. In reaction to Larry Flynt's disclosures about sexual dalliances by Republicans, GOP national chairman Jim Nicholson joined the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation in demanding a criminal investigation of the Hustler magazine publisher and his investigator, Dan Moldea.

Ignoring the First Amendment, Nicholson advocated indictments of Flynt and Moldea for investigating evidence of Republican sexual hypocrisy. The GOP chief urged that they be charged under a law designed to prevent obstruction of congressional investigations.

"The Flynt-Carville-Moldea tactics of intimidation and blackmail aren't just wrong, they're illegal, and our attorney general ought to take off her blindfold and begin criminal prosecutions," Nicholson stated on Jan. 15.

House Republican leaders demanded a similar criminal probe when the online magazine, Salon, disclosed an extramarital affair involving Henry Hyde, R-Ill.

So, the Republicans’ ultimate "end game" might not occur in 1999 with Bill Clinton’s impeachment, but in 2001 with the start of a new Republican administration. With control of the Executive Branch, a Republican attorney general could begin enforcing these novel interpretations of the law.

A GOP Justice Department, run by the likes of Kenneth Starr and the Landmark Legal Foundation, could begin searching for grounds to prosecute those GOP political enemies still in the way.


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