Impeachment politics less a factor as Election Day nears
Public satisfaction bodes well for incumbents
WASHINGTON (October 23) -- When the House of Representatives voted earlier this month to launch a wide-ranging impeachment inquiry against President Bill Clinton, it looked like a ticket for disaster at the polls for congressional Democrats.
Democratic lawmakers, already braced for traditional "six-year itch" losses in the House and Senate, had to wonder whether Clinton's raging libido would wind up deepening their minority status on Capitol Hill.
Now, with less than two weeks to go until November 3, impeachment politics appears to be less of a factor in these midterm elections than Republicans might have hoped or Democrats had feared in the days immediately after Clinton's humiliating confession that he lied to the American public about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Why is that?
First, surveys continue to show most Americans do not want Clinton impeached and removed from office. Republicans know they risk a backlash if they try too hard to make Clinton's behavior an election issue in each and every race.
A CNN/TIME Poll last week found only 12 percent of those surveyed want Clinton impeached and removed from office, compared with 28 percent who favor censure, 21 percent who favor resignation and 34 percent who favor no action against him at all.
The survey also found that if the election were held now, Democratic candidates for Congress would pick up as much support among likely voters as Republicans would.
Thirty-two percent of likely voters said they were less likely to support a candidate who favors Clinton's impeachment, and only 17 percent of likely voters say they were more likely to vote for someone who favors impeachment.
So as they campaign for re-election, Republicans generally are not talking at length about impeachment, but rather are returning to traditional GOP themes -- tax relief, smaller government and turning power back to the states and localities.
"There is a very big difference in where the two parties will take America," House Speaker Newt Gingrich said as the House adjourned earlier this week. "I sometimes get distressed by our friends in the media because they try to reduce everything to gossip, scandal-mongering and cynicism that I think is profoundly false for this country's future. There is an enormous difference in the two parties. We would go two very different places."
Second, the impeachment inquiry itself is in a relatively quiet phase for now.
House Judiciary Committee investigators and White House lawyers met earlier this week to discuss ground rules for the inquiry and hearings, expected to begin in mid-November. But compared to the frenzy of coverage between Clinton's August 17 confession and the House's October 8 vote, the story has cooled.
Part of it is Clinton's and the Democrats' doing. One of any president's greatest powers is the ability to set the agenda, and once again, Democrats have succeeded in changing the subject. Talk of impeachment has been replaced by the Mideast peace negotiations and the budget deal, which Democrats managed to turn into a debate on education, help for farmers and the global economy.
"I think what's happened is everybody's kind of gotten beyond all this business with the president, and now they're focusing on issues that directly affect their lives: education, health care, the future of Social Security," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
While impeachment isn't dominating the pre-election debate, the issue does resonate in some races more than others.
'Enough is enough'
In Washington state's 1st congressional district, Democratic challenger Jay Inslee opted to address the impeachment issue directly in a campaign ad, condemning Clinton's behavior but ripping Republican incumbent Rick White for voting for an open-ended investigation of the president.
"What the president did was wrong; he should be censured, but not impeached," Inslee said in his ad. "Rick White and Newt Gingrich shouldn't be dragging us through this. Enough is enough. It's time to get on with the nation's business."
His campaign says the ad elicited a good response from voters tired of the Lewinsky scandal.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, Democratic challenger Ralph Neas has taken a similar tack in his bid to unseat Republican incumbent Connie Morella.
In other House districts, some of the 31 incumbent Democrats who sided with Republicans and voted for the impeachment inquiry now must wait and see how their decision plays with the voters.
Rep. Jim Maloney, a freshmen Democrat from Connecticut's 5th congressional district who is widely viewed as vulnerable this year, went along with the inquiry. Maloney has said his constituents are evenly split over his decision.
"That doesn't mean we can walk away or try to sweep something like this under the rug," Maloney said. "It doesn't fit under the rug. It needs to be dealt with publicly, and resolved as quickly as possible."
Some Democrats in longshot races have adopted the strategy of defending Clinton.
In New York, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, who trails Gov. George Pataki badly in the governor's race, has run ads defending Clinton. Vallone's approach has been to acknowledge Clinton's mistake, forgive him and urge the nation to "move on."
In a reflection of the way the impeachment issue cuts both ways, consider some of the recent rhetoric of Vice President Al Gore, who has become the Democrats' campaigner-in-chief, standing in for the damaged Clinton. Gore talks more directly about the investigation than some Republican candidates.
At a California campaign rally earlier this week, Gore made his point with a rhyming rhetorical flourish.
"The difference in our approaches is clear," Gore said. "We say legislate, they say investigate. We say educate, they say castigate. We say illuminate, they say interrogate. We say unify, they say vilify. We say make the decisions, they say take depositions. We say cure the sick, they play partisan tricks. We say let's heal our nation, they just say more investigation."
Finally, impeachment as a factor in the election has been trumped by voter's general satisfaction with the state of the nation. A full 78 percent of the American public thinks things are going well, which CNN analyst Bill Schneider reports is the highest figure ever recorded this close to an election.
That satisfaction bodes well for incumbents, Democrats and Republicans alike, notwithstanding the president's problems.
The wild card, though, is whether the prospect of impeachment may energize certain groups of voters to turn out in greater numbers -- either Republicans disgusted with Clinton's behavior or Democrats disgusted with Congress' handling of the Starr report and impeachment inquiry so far.
The election's effect on the inquiry
So much for the impeachment inquiry's effect on the election. What about the election's effect on the impeachment inquiry?
That will be clearer the morning of November 4, when the composition of the next House and Senate are known.
Most immediately, there could be changes on the Judiciary Committee. Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, made Roll Call's list of the 10 most vulnerable House members. And two other members of the committee, Reps. Bob Inglis (R-South Carolina) and Charles Schumer (D-New York), could be moving up and out, depending on the outcome of their Senate bids.
More important, though, if Republicans exceed the average "six-year itch" gains and Democrats suffer bigger-than-expected losses, it could embolden Republicans to move more aggressively against Clinton. And some congressional Democrats will surely blame the losses on Clinton and his scandal, whatever other factors were at work.
Conversely, if Republicans gains are slight -- one to three Senate seats and a dozen House Houses, for example -- momentum probably would shift toward some sort of congressional censure instead of sending articles of impeachment to the Senate.
There, Clinton's opponents would need 67 votes to convict and remove, a hurdle that looks insurmountable at this point.
CNN's Brooks Jackson and Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.
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