Asked in a television interview last month whether the election results will change the tenor of the impeachment argument on Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey of Texas rose to a lofty altitude of statesmanship. ''No, I don't think so,'' he said. ''This is a matter of duty. . . . You're talking about perhaps one of the most sacred obligations we will ever be required to undertake.'' Armey managed to stay up there for about 20 seconds, but the strain was too much for him. Five sentences later he was sounding like this: ''The Democrats on the committee are bound to make everything a circus as they've done with everything else that we've tried to do to bring any oversight to this administration.'' The Republican leader's point, naturally, was that the Democrats are too partisan.
Well, Armey was right about one thing: The elections will not much change the impeachment situation. Tuesday's robust Democratic showing confirmed both the public's disdain for the Clinton scandal and the Republicans' sole and uncontested ownership of the impeachment process. Which means that for the impeachment story, it's all over but the whining.
When historians assess the current scandal, they will not search the record to figure out what went wrong; they'll search to find something that went right. The affair has been a cascade, a farrago, of errors and excesses. There was the 1994 decision by a three-judge panel to replace Whitewater Independent Counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr., a respected former career prosecutor, with the less experienced and more partisan Kenneth W. Starr. And the Supreme Court's what-me-worry decision to let Paula Corbin Jones steam ahead with her sexual harassment lawsuit against a sitting president. And Starr's self-defeating issue of subpoenas to the likes of Sidney Blumenthal and Monica Lewinsky's mother. And Starr's weirdly salacious report, with its cigar tricks, thong underwear and censorious asides. And the Republicans' release of Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony. And--sorry, did I almost forget?--the president's decisions to have sex in his office with a young intern and then lie about it under oath, repeatedly.
It is, therefore, no mean accomplishment to win the prize for the most baffling mistake in this reign of error. But that is what Armey and his Republican House colleagues did, on Oct. 8, when they authorized impeachment hearings with the support of only 31 Democrats.
In the public's eyes, Kenneth Starr's investigation of the Lewinsky affair was compromised from the start by fishy whiffs of entrapment and personal vindictiveness. You could say that the smell came more from trash hurled at Starr by the White House than from Starr's own conduct. Nonetheless, the investigation lost the confidence of much of the public. This makes it all the more essential for the impeachment process, taking up where Starr left off, to be as odorless as humanly possible.
No impeachment proceeding can enjoy public confidence if it is a creature of party politics. Impeachment's legitimacy rests on its standing as a great affair of state rather than as a tool of partisan political torture. The 1974 Watergate impeachment inquiry vote of 410 to 4 differed from October's Monicagate impeachment inquiry vote of 258 to 176 in more than just the degree of House support that it commanded. The nearly unanimous inquiry of 1974 and the party-line inquiry of 1998 are different animals, one an affair of the Congress, the other an affair of the Congress's majority party.
In October, the House Democrats offered to support a slightly, but only slightly, more limited impeachment inquiry than the Republicans preferred. The Democrats wanted to end the inquiry by Dec. 31, they wanted to limit its scope to matters referred to Congress by Starr, and they wanted the Judiciary Committee to consider first what sorts of offenses are impeachable. The Democrats' terms would have constrained the Republicans a little, not a lot. The Republicans could have extended the inquiry beyond Jan. 1, or broadened its purview, by asking the Republican House for approval. ''We have said that if we get to the end of the year and we need more time, that you (Republicans) can come to the floor and more time will be granted,'' said House Minority leader Richard A. Gephardt. ''You run the House.'' In exchange for their smallish concessions, the Republicans would have implicated the Democrats in the impeachment process. The burden would have been on Democrats to show the process unfair, rather than on Republicans to prove it fair.
The Republicans walked away from the deal. And that, really, was that for impeachment. The rest was afterword, postscript, footnote and appendices A through Z. From the moment the impeachment vote was cast, and without the aid of binoculars, one could see clear through to the end of the tunnel.
First, Clinton would survive in office, because, on the present charges and the existing evidence, there were not enough Senate votes to convict him. (New charges and new evidence may come to light, but that would be a different story.)
Second, the impeachment process would become, in the public's view and maybe also in reality, an ordinary partisan squabble, more like a capital gains bill or a budget fight than a grand inquiry of the whole legislative branch. Even if the Republicans tried very hard to conduct an impeccable inquiry, Democrats could call it a Republican kangaroo court.
Third, those who were outraged by Clinton's conduct would now have to abide his continued presence in office; those who were outraged by the excesses and indignities of the Jones-Starr investigation would now have to endure a congressional rehash; those, like me, who were disgusted by both could take solace only in drunkenness or death.
The election might have changed the equation, but it didn't. The Republicans have moved not one Senate seat closer to convicting Clinton, and their loss of a handful of House seats underscores the public's disgust and disengagement. Most people told the exit pollsters that Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr-Jones hadn't influenced the vote; but the public's insistence on flicking aside the Beltway elephant as though it were a flea amounts to a signed and notarized message that Republicans proceed with their impeachment--and that is now what it is, ''their'' impeachment-- at risk predominantly to themselves.
And so Republicans pursuing impeachment now place themselves in the position of the man who puts on concrete overshoes and lead-lined socks and then goes for a swim in the ocean. The public wants Clinton to stay and the impeachment process to go away. For the Republicans to conduct a partisan impeachment in the teeth of firm public opposition is to put themselves squarely in the path of the public's exasperation. The only question is when, between now and the bottom of the sea, the Republicans will give up, cut a deal with Clinton, and seek medical attention for their injuries.
A more notable consequence is that the impeachment process itself, an object of awe for two centuries, will be routinized by the public's largely correct assessment that it is just for show. Knowing that Clinton will stay in office, the public will treat the Constitution's gravest and highest juridical process as a tedious Beltway nuisance. Ho-hum--more impeachment news--change the channel. It will be the C-SPAN impeachment.
In this space a few weeks ago, I fretted that the impeachment of the president of the United States would be a 20- year trauma. Now, after the Oct. 8 party-line vote and this week's elections, I wonder if I didn't get it exactly backwards: The real problem with the impeachment may be its triviality. For the public, the lesson of a partisan impeachment ending in a political deal will be that the whole business can safely be ignored, like a farm bill or a continuing resolution.
So now it's all over but the weeks (months?) of irritation and indignation and posturing and yelling and flotsam and backwash. The impeachment process, and therefore the Constitution, will be diminished. Congressional Republicans will be left to dress their wounds and wonder whether Newt Gingrich and Wile E. Coyote are twins separated at birth. Congressional Democrats, however, will be in a poor position to capitalize, given the position that their president has put them in.
Apart from the lawyers, only one party to the whole mess will emerge in relatively good shape, all things considered: Bill Clinton. You could call him a genius for keeping the Democrats off the impeachment bandwagon, but truth is stranger than fiction. The Republicans went to the voters with an unpopular, partisan impeachment, and the voters, not all that surprisingly, declared the impeachment unpopular and partisan. What will flummox tomorrow's historians above all is that, on Oct. 8, Republicans chose this course.