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Political Science Fiction

Republicans and pundits bet that the videotape would convince us the Clinton presidency is over. But the upcoming election could prove them wrong yet again.

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I watched the first half-hour of the videotape in the radio-and-television-correspondents' gallery, a suite of small offices on the third floor of the Capitol building. The thing having established itself as anticlimactic within moments, I wandered into a small room dominated by a lectern, whose front features the seal of the House of Representatives, and a television backdrop made to resemble a study. When you see Newt Gingrich or Dick Gephardt briefing the press on some matter of national gravity, it's usually from here.

Approaching the shelf behind the lectern, I studied the books. They weren't fake. That would have been expected. No, they were real books, all right, but the shelves were only about five inches deep, and so the books were lopped in half lengthwise and rebound at the corners! Smith's Wealth of Nations, Stendhal's Red and the Black, Hemmeter's Diseases of the Stomach -- chopped clean in two. I puzzled: Why go to all this trouble, why take reality and then, at public expense, maim it and manufacture a worthless imitation of reality? Then I remembered I was in Washington.

It was inevitable that an investigation so reckless as Kenneth Starr's should have overreached, and that a Republican majority so panting in partisan heat should have done the same. Bill Clinton isn't the only one who shouldn't have gone to climax: The release of the video -- just another of this probe's many scandalous defenestrations of due process, this one perpetrated not by the pervert and zealot Starr but by our elected representatives -- was calculated to be the topper, the event that would finally stir the wrath of a public that conservatives and the media have come to loathe. People, as usual, exercised their loathsome good sense, and yawned.

How quickly the coyotes who prowl the cable channels ran up the white flag! As I watched Tuesday night, the fires that usually animate their eyes were reduced to sodden embers. Suddenly -- in one day! -- the talk was not of immediate impeachment or resignation but of the difficulties Clinton will face as he limps through his two remaining years.

That'd be nice, but this consensus, having been incubated after all in the land of half-books, was as false as the one that preceded it. Something did change after the videotape was aired -- Clinton's enemies began to realize that maybe public opinion would never budge -- but this moment of humility will surely pass. This week, they'll be back at it, trying to bring out the tape of the president's Paula Jones deposition, among other moves. The release of this testimony can have only one propagandistic purpose, which is to feed the networks more footage of Clinton lying so that it can be juxtaposed to other footage of him lying and then to footage of him finally telling his grudging version of the truth while the voice-over reads from the same old script. The barrage will continue; as the phlegmatic Englishman is said to have remarked upon seeing Niagara Falls for the first time, "But whatever is to stop it?"

Well, a couple of things. First, the midterm elections. History dictates that the sitting president's party takes a bath at the polls in his sixth year, often to the tune of 25 seats or so in the House. Even during the blackest night of Monicamania, no one thought the Republicans would gain that much, so the Democrats are already ahead of the game, historically speaking. Now, a little math from a Democratic operative who follows these things: There are thirteen incumbent Democrats whose seats are marginal, ten incumbent Republican marginals, in the parlance, and fifteen marginal open seats. The other 397 are already done deals, so these 38 seats will chart the next Congress's course. Given the way such chips usually fall, it would be odd for either party to gain or lose many more than ten seats.

The Republicans are pressing a vote on moving forward with impeachment sometime in early October. They hope, says Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald, that this will accomplish two things: put Democrats on the spot, and energize their own base. "The Republicans are betting that despite the fact that a majority is against impeachment and resignation, their base is not only for impeachment and resignation, they're wildly for them," she says. Grunwald and all Democrats fear a low turnout on their side, so the Republican effort to make the elections an impeachment referendum concerns them.

There are Republicans who doubt the strategy's efficacy. "Republicans, going back to 1992, have been pretty terrible at articulating what it is that troubles people about Bill Clinton," says GOP consultant Stuart Stevens. "And we don't seem to be getting any better." He recalls working in Bob Dole's campaign and seeing poll numbers showing broad public awareness of Clinton's oilier qualities, but the campaign "never knew what to do with it." To Stevens, the Monica mess may not automatically translate into bad news for Democrats or good news for Republicans, helping instead candidates of either party who are pure of heart and habit. "You can't say, 'You're a Democrat so you're a pathological liar and have sex with 21-year-olds,' " he says.

The scandal dynamic will shift a dozen times between now and November 3, but the current lay of the land suggests that clever Democrats might find ways to use anti-Starr sentiment to their advantage, thereby limiting the damage the election might do and slowing impeachment momentum. Myself, I'd like to see some of them run aggressively against Ken Starr and Linda Tripp and the whole shebang: "My opponent wants to go to Washington to roll around in the mud for six months, and I want to go there to move us past prosecutors and rat-fink friends and work on education and health care and Social Security. You decide."

Second, it's high time the media take stock. Someone in a position of power in the major media must chart a way to cover these things that's more responsive to public opinion. Suppose that, for eight long months, the public had said x about some policy question, and Bill Clinton had resolutely and repeatedly said, "To hell with the public. Not x!" Imagine the sanctimonious finger-wagging that we'd see from the very folks who have spent the past eight months doing exactly that! Cokie and Steve Roberts, in their silly column (how do two people write a column, anyway?), actually went so far as to write that it's "conscience vs. constituency," and members of Congress must choose, as if this witch hunt that makes Helmut Kohl and every reasonable person the world over "want to vomit" were the moral equivalent of desegregation. Cokie, Steve, Sam Donaldson, Howell Raines, George Will, Chris Matthews -- the American people have suffered long enough! Stop putting your sexually obsessed self-interest ahead of the public you purport to serve. Pursue the only honorable option that remains before you and resign now!


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