Posted on February 15, 1999 in Washington Watch

When the votes were finally taken, the Senate did not convict President Clinton and remove him from office. The trial was over–but no one declared victory. No one celebrated because everyone lost.

Months of humiliation have left the nation embarrassed. Months of partisan bickering and posturing have left the nation exhausted. And months of a pointless trial have left many simply bored and alienated.

It was pointless, because for months now it has been clear that the Senate could not muster the votes needed to convict the President. The impeachment case was too weak and too partisan. The charges were simply too insubstantial to meet the requirements for removal.

The longer the trial went on, the more pathetic it became. The hard line prosecutors picked by the House of Representatives to present their case before the Senate were, at one point, reduced to whining. “Please don’t dismiss this” they urged, “please give us the chance to bring witnesses before you,” they pleaded. And, in the end, “please don’t embarrass us by voting against our case.”

Time and again, the Republican leadership in the Senate gave their colleagues, the Republican House prosecutors, the opportunities they requested. All the while, it was clear that the case could not succeed.

In the last few days, pundits began to strategize an “end game”–how the Republicans could gracefully exit from this prolonged agony. But there was no graceful exit. The only end was to vote to acquit the President and move on. And so they did.

While the trial in the Senate is over, the final chapter in this sordid affair has not been written. The Independent Prosecutor Ken Starr, whose personal crusade against the President brought the impeachment charges to the Congress, is still planning the next phase of his work. Starr, according to several reports, is continuing his work on several fronts. He may yet indict the President on criminal charges and seek to try to him in court, either before or after Clinton leaves office. Similarly Starr is continuing to press ahead with efforts to prosecute a number of individuals who were only peripherally involved in the many investigations against the President.

Starr already has a number of trials of Clinton associates pending and, according to a recent Senate report, the Independent Prosecutor may even begin a new investigation to see whether or not the White House has “taped” Oval Office conversations that the President had with his staff.

But while Ken Starr continues his seemingly unending efforts to end Clinton’s Presidency, he is also under investigation. A federal court is examining whether or not Starr and his associates have illegally leaked information to the press in an effort to embarrass the President. The Attorney General (AG), the Administration official to whom Starr is ultimately responsible, is also reportedly investigating whether or not Starr is guilty of “acting improperly” in an effort to coerce Monica Lewinsky to turn against the President and whether or not Starr had inappropriate contact with Paula Jones’ attorneys. If this is true then the AG may find that Starr lied when he claimed that he “had no contact with [Jones’] attorneys.”

So while Starr plods on with his $50 million campaign against the President, the Clinton Administration must now decide whether they have enough evidence of Starr’s misdeeds and enough public political support to remove Starr from his job.

The fallout of the impeachment saga will be felt elsewhere. The hard-line right wing ideologues in Congress and on radio talk shows are determined to continue their campaign against Clinton. They never accepted his victory in 1992. They were devastated by his repeat victory in 1996 and have now been enflamed by his having escaped conviction. Their efforts are fed by a hard-core 30 to 35 percent of the public who share their views and their hatred of the President.

Already some Republican candidates for the 2000 presidential nomination are seeking to make Clinton’s behavior and his impeachment an issue in their campaign.

If this group will not let the matter rest, apparently neither will some Democrats. Reports have been circulating in recent days that some of the House Managers (as the Republican congressional prosecutors were called) have been targeted for defeat when they run for reelection for their congressional seats in 2000.

It is unclear how this matter will play out in the next year. Will the public punish those Democrats who defended the President or punish those Republicans who sought to remove him from office? Or will the public simply tune out and indicate no desire to replay this sordid saga?

For his part, the President has continued, as he promised months ago, to proceed with the matters of state. To some extent this tactic has worked. While Republicans focused on impeachment and then conviction, their popularity ratings have fallen substantially below that of the Democrats. Currently one poll shows the Republicans favorable rating at 40 percent as compared to a 57 percent rating for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile most polls are showing that Clinton’s job performance rating is up to the mid 60 percent range. And in a recent poll evaluating presidential “greatness” Clinton’s 43 percent rating surpassed George Bush’s 42 percent and almost matched Eisenhower’s 43.8 percent rating. Far down the list were Carter (31 percent), Nixon (21 percent), Johnson (18 percent) and Ford (17 percent).

This is not to say that the President has not been damaged by the events of the past year. While his defenders have been as vigorous in defending him as detractors have been in attacking him, his image has been tarnished. His ability, however, to win public support for the initiatives of his Presidency, however, does not seem to be so negatively effected, even if he is a “lame duck”–that is serving in his last two years. Clinton’s ability, however, to convince Congress to support him, is another matter. Despite calls by backers of both sides that the impeachment matter finally be put aside and the White House and Congress address the nation’s business, it remains to be seen whether or not that can happen.

The Senate trial might be over, but with a ravenous media still eager to find and exploit a good fight and with the 2000 election season coming up soon, I expect that even if the majority of Americans don’t want to have another partisan word spoken, the political battles will continue.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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