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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

On the fast track to impeach

The public wants the scandal to end, but Gingrich cannot afford to cut a deal just yet. He's got to please the faithful and settle some scores

By Karen Tumulty Washington

TIME magazine

Depending on how you view the past nine months, the vote this week that is expected to set into motion the third presidential-impeachment inquiry in the history of the Republic is either a public travesty or a national reckoning long overdue. But if the process is political, the politics are personal. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, two large-living, big-talking, history-obsessed prisoners of their own appetites, have always been their own worst enemy and each other's salvation. Clinton's ideological overreaching helped put Gingrich in the Speaker's chair; Gingrich's arrogance and petulance handed Clinton his re-election. The lesson for both: it takes a deft touch to set the right trap; but if you do, the other one will stumble right into it.

So it was that last week found Gingrich preaching statesmanship as he stumped for Republican candidates in Dayton and Cleveland, Ohio. "We must not rush to judgment," said the man who has already branded Clinton a misogynist and accused the President and his party of "the most systematic, deliberate obstruction of justice, cover-up and effort to avoid the truth that we have ever seen in American history." But while Gingrich talked about going slowly, the House was picking up its pace toward this week's vote. And as a G.O.P. strategist worried: "Once you set up an inquiry, how do you stop it?"

Those close to Gingrich say that's precisely the question he is considering privately, even though last week he resisted appeals by Democrats--and quiet entreaties by some in his own party--to limit the scope and the length of the inquiry. While the Republican faithful are still eager to have Clinton's hide at any cost, the message coming through loudest in the polls is that the public at large is thoroughly sick of the scandal. "He's going to have to make a case why this has to go on ad nauseam--and ad nauseam is a good way to put it," a White House official said of the bind Gingrich faces. "I don't think anyone is going to want to have a holiday season spoiled by this subject."

And for what? Most Republicans now concede that any effort to unseat Clinton will almost certainly fail, barring a Republican landslide in the November midterm election or some unforeseen bombshell from independent counsel Ken Starr. Even if the House votes articles of impeachment against the President, and even if the Republicans pick up as many as five seats in the Senate this fall, they will still be seven short of what the Senate needs to convict Clinton and remove him from office. "Do the math," says a Republican Senate aide. "Clinton may have to go through the disgrace of articles, but he knows he'll win."

Nor would Republicans necessarily wish otherwise--particularly since the three words they fear most are President Al Gore. Clinton's ouster would bestow on the Vice President the advantage of running in 2000 as an incumbent, and as the man who helped the nation get over Monica. But in the shadow of a scandal-prone President, Gore is suffering in comparison with the most talked-about possible Republican contender. Polls show that if the 2000 election were held today, Texas Governor George W. Bush would handily beat Gore; a year ago, the same surveys had Gore ahead. "The optimum scenario for Republicans is a diminished Bill Clinton hobbling through the next two years," said a Republican strategist.

But that's the long game. For now, those close to Gingrich insist, he has no choice but to continue on the treacherous course that has been set. He is boxed in between two opposing forces: majority public opinion and the 100 or so most conservative members of his party in the House, the very lawmakers to whom he owes his speakership. "To the solid core of Republicans who have hated Clinton since Day One, to back off now would be heresy," says a top G.O.P. lobbyist. "It would also destroy Gingrich's political ambitions." And in a year when voter turnout is expected to be lower than ever, the party's chances for capturing 20 or more seats in the House, as well as three to five seats in the Senate and nearly as many statehouses, depend on the very group of voters who are most eager to see impeachment through. For Gingrich too there is a practical reason for waiting. Starr could still have damaging material that he has yet to release, so why take the chance of letting the President off the hook?

So Gingrich waits, partly because he wants to, but mostly because he has to, at least until after the election. That's when cutting a deal might start to make sense for him and even for the other side: Gingrich can stop worrying about galvanizing his base, and if he picks up a less-than-expected number of seats--say, only five or six--some in the party can argue it's a message to find a way out of the Lewinsky mess. As for the Democrats, if they lose big, they can go to Clinton with this appeal: "Here are the Democrats who died for you. It's time to sign on the dotted line."

Until then, Gingrich's lieutenants in Congress are moving to quiet the Democrats' cries of unfairness. Last week they reversed themselves to let the Democrats review documents Starr did not submit to Congress; they gave the Democrats subpoena power and, in hopes of calming everyone's nerves, pledged to press Starr for some indication of what he has left to deliver. Said Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee: "I am doing everything but one-armed pushups to be fair, and I would do those if I could."

Even in this highly polarized environment, as the Republican House prepares to take on a Democratic President, there are some glimmers of detente. Four moderate members of the Judiciary Committee--Democrats William Delahunt and Howard Berman, and Republicans Asa Hutchinson and Lindsey Graham--are holding quiet meetings. From their talks may come the coalition that might devise a way out for everyone.

For now, the immediate question is, How many Democrats in the full House will vote to begin the inquiry? G.O.P. strategists concede that if counts by midweek do not demonstrate enough Democratic support to make a plausible show of bipartisanship, they may have to put time limits on the inquiry and limit its scope to the Lewinsky matter. Sources tell TIME that Hyde last week was also considering announcing that his hearings would be completed by Christmas.

Republicans know that at a minimum they must appear reasonable. The spectacle of a meanspirited or obsessive drive against the President could send more Democrats to the polls and, in a broader sense, make an above-the-fray Clinton more popular as he benefits from a sympathy surge. But it remains to be seen whether Gingrich can manage a strategy that requires patience and restraint--traits not always evident in a Speaker who once cited his pique over having to exit Air Force One through the rear door as a reason for shutting down the government.

When it comes to scandal, Gingrich's instinct has always been for the jugular. He rose to power on the disgrace he brought to those he deemed corrupt, starting with his first year in Congress when he sought the expulsion from the House of Charles Diggs, a Democrat convicted of financial misdeeds, and culminating with his successful campaign in 1989 to force Speaker Jim Wright's resignation.

As Gingrich considers what constitutes fair treatment in Clinton's case, he also has a personal score to settle with the President. Friends and allies say he blames Clinton for the Democrats' 1996 ad campaign painting Gingrich as an extremist and making him more vulnerable to the subsequent congressional investigation into his ethics. (For making political use of a tax-exempt organization, Gingrich became the first Speaker in history to be punished by the House; he was forced to pay a $300,000 fine.) Meeting with Democratic leaders the day the Starr report arrived on Capitol Hill, Gingrich could not resist rehashing how unfairly he thought he had been treated. He had done more for President Clinton in this scandal, he said bitterly, than anyone from the Democratic Party had done for him.

One could argue that he has helped the White House most effectively by making himself a galvanizing force for the Democrats. And the Democrats were at it again last week: James Carville--the supposedly free-lance strategist who consults almost daily with the White House--announced he was declaring war on the Speaker. While the wiser strategy would have been to ignore Carville, the Republican high command took the bait, engaging in several days of name calling that once again focused attention on Gingrich and the question of whether the country's most unpopular elected official is calling the shots for Judiciary chairman Hyde.

But the Clinton team has its own penchant for miscalculation, particularly when things start going well. As a team member put it: "There's always the danger that we will screw it up the way we normally do, by overplaying our hand and getting too feisty." Carville's assault raised hackles among Democrats in Congress, who do not see much advantage in alienating the very Republicans with whom they may ultimately need to cut a deal. And last week saw the White House disavowing a plan to raise millions for a pro-Clinton advertising campaign at a time when all Democratic dollars are needed to elect candidates.

As the impeachment combat begins, the challenge for Clinton and Gingrich will be to avoid each other's traps--and their own. Because if their past as sparring partners offers any lesson, it's that they need each other to survive. --With reporting by John F. Dickerson, Michael Duffy and Michael Weisskopf/Washington

A COALITION FOR COMPROMISE
Four House members are talking; it's a start

ASA HUTCHINSON
The former U.S. Attorney has worked with Democrats to draftlegislation on campaign finance

HOWARD BERMAN
Once a union lawyer, he is the only veteran in the group with close ties to chairman Hyde

WILLIAM DELAHUNT
The 20-year Massachusetts prosecutor wins praise from his colleagues for evenhandedness

LINDSEY GRAHAM
A onetime Air Force lawyer, he wants to "set the bar for impeachment high"


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 12, 1998

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