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Q: What If . . .

. . . the Republicans had been driven by a Ronald Reagan pragmatism rather than sheer Clinton hate before the impeachment debacle? A: No impeachment. No debacle.

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Can it really be? over? As I write these words, the Senate has not yet laid its king prone across the board, but the bishops and rooks are closing fast. Reality check, you might say.

Is there any way that it all could have been different? Well, Bill Clinton could have resisted temptation in the first place, but that's asking for a gene transplant. He could have fessed up, and, at some relatively quiet point last May or June, should have.

But wait a second -- it's the losers who are supposed to ponder the what-ifs, isn't it? So let's fine-tune the question a bit: How could the Republicans have handled this in a way that didn't cost them an election, two Speakers, and whatever national goodwill they once owned? It's a question the GOP should consider, even though there's no sign right now it will.

"I have no doubt in my mind," says Long Island Republican congressman and intraparty dissident Peter King, "that if Ronald Reagan had somehow been in charge of leading the Republican position on this, he would have found the right mood for us to use. Anger at what happened, but respect for the president and the presidency, and the feeling that this hurts us more than it hurts him." King restates what was often observed during Reagan's presidency: that he had a rare purchase on the lingua franca of political dialogue and understood that when Republicans show fangs, it only reinforces the worst that people believe about them.

Toward his party's leadership, King is unsparing. "I think they screwed it up pretty badly," he says. "Basically, we saw the inability of the Republican Congress to come across as a national governing party. It is a regional party, driven by this visceral hatred of Clinton. A leadership more attuned to mainstream thinking that didn't think that everyone worshiped Rush Limbaugh could have done this and found the right mood. But if you come from a mind-set where you believe every good person in America hates Bill Clinton, you can't do that."

King is a conservative, but he is a conservative from a part of the country somewhat alien to many of his GOP peers. He represents, for example, actual Jews, and even a few immigrants, along with many Catholics. Not so with his colleagues who drove impeachment. Numbers compiled by the National Committee for an Effective Congress, the country's leading liberal authority on congressional races, tell the story. The districts of the thirteen House managers look something like this: Jim Sensenbrenner's, 98 percent white. Asa Hutchinson's, 95 percent white. Steve Buyer's, 96 percent. Henry Hyde's, 88 percent (but only 1 percent black). Clinton beat Bob Dole in 1996, but he carried only two of these thirteen districts. The NCEC estimates that in only three of them would a Democrat stand even a sporting chance of winning a House race. The Republicans were tailoring a strategy only for districts like these.

Still, there were points along the way when the party could surely have come to terms with the fact that public opinion would probably never support impeachment, and done what politicians do -- cut a deal. King believes that the aftermath of August 17 -- when Clinton testified before Starr's grand jury and gave his mean-spirited apology to the people on TV that night -- afforded the perfect opportunity. Even though polls still showed broad support for dropping the whole thing, Clinton was in trouble, especially in his own party; it was after that speech that senators like Dianne Feinstein and Joseph Lieberman started pasting him. "That was the time to go for a severe censure," King says. "With Clinton on the ropes, he would have consented to almost anything at that stage. It would have been the right thing to do for the country, and it would have made us look good." It's also likely that Gingrich could have squeezed something out of Clinton legislatively -- HMO reform, a Social Security deal -- that would have given the GOP Congress something to run on.


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