Q: What If . . .

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.

Here’s another scenario. “It was after the release of the Starr Report on September 11, with the release of the tapes and the vote to start impeachment proceedings, that the momentum changed,” says Charlie Cook, editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report. “Prior to that, we saw only demoralized Democratic voters.” You’ll recall September’s conventional wisdom: that even though general public support for Clinton was high, the people who were motivated to vote were on the right, and the GOP would pick up 10 to 25 House seats. “Right then, they moved in for the kill for the election,” Cook says, “and instead, it bit ‘em on the ass. They could have simply deferred, said they’d deal with the report after the election. If they’d done that, Democratic voters would never have reengaged.” No Democratic backlash, no GOP loss of five House seats; Gingrich would still be Speaker, and Republicans might actually have looked reasonable.

Just two examples, to which others could be added. Certainly Gingrich, or if it was too late for him, his putative successor, Bob Livingston, could have surveyed the election’s wreckage and moved for censure then. But Livingston did nothing – we now know why – and ceded the process to Hyde and Tom DeLay. King believes that even through Thanksgiving there were exit strategies un-seized upon. “I don’t think anyone thought there was a serious chance of impeachment until the first week of December,” he says. “It went from going nowhere to being out of control.”

By now, you’ve probably already read that it’s not over. There’s still Kathleen Willey, and Julie Hiatt Steele, and technology to China (and where’s John Huang now?), bleats the right. From the left comes the case against Ken Starr, the crescendo from the chorus singing for Janet Reno to fire him.

It’s enough to keep the cable shows off the respirator for a spell, but this story is over. The psychological upshot? After most national crises, the people look to their leaders, or so we’re told, for stability and resurrection of confidence. But this was never a crisis, inasmuch as crises – Dreyfus, the world wars, Watergate, that sort of thing – demand the inescapable emotional engagement of the public. For weeks now, the people have been concentrating on ignoring Washington, but even concentrating on ignoring Washington is, in a sense, concentrating on Washington. One suspects it’ll be a while before people pay attention again.

Especially to the Republicans, now at their lowest point in some 30 years. Cook states the obvious with pith when he says that “if a Martian came down and looked at our political system for the first time, he’d think the Republicans were a new party formed solely to investigate and attack the president of the United States.” Republicans don’t agree (or, more likely, don’t care). Writing in the February 8 Weekly Standard, William Kristol argued that “the real problem afflicting the Republican party today is not impeachment. It’s everything but impeachment.” An astonishing statement. He means that the party isn’t talking about its core agenda – “defending the country, defending the Constitution, defending the unborn” – but he seems not to understand that the party hasn’t been stressing its core agenda because it’s been stressing something else, something that leaves two thirds of the country either disgusted or bored.

In the coming weeks, Republicans will talk of getting back to basics. “That Clinton State of the Union address was Lyndon Johnson on steroids,” says Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax outfit. “Money for this. Here! Money for that. Here! It’s great for us. He’s moved so far to the left on all the issues we can beat him on.” Norquist walked me through a remark Clinton made in Buffalo the day after that speech. Discussing the budget surplus, Clinton told his jelly-kneed audience that “we could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right.” Applause. Then: “But I think – here’s the problem. If you don’t spend it right, here’s what’s going to happen,” and he issued warnings about the demise of Social Security.

This sort of talk is mother’s milk to Norquist, who vows to “ram that down Clinton’s and Gore’s throats.” (“And put it up on our Website!” he chirped to an aide as she was faxing a copy to me.) And it is true that the Republicans have one possible advantage in the post-Monica world. “The strategy of Democrats to get back the House is not necessarily the same,” Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald says, as the president’s strategy “to get himself into the history books.” Congressional Democrats want nothing to pass, or at least nothing that isn’t theirs, lest the GOP be able to claim credit for something. Clinton, though, wants to pass legislation. As do Republicans.

The political upshot of Monica, then, might be Triangulation Part Two, with Clinton again putting room between himself and his party’s congressional leaders. But Democrats who stuck by this president more loyally than he deserved have some chits to call on him, too, and besides, Republicans aren’t exactly coming at this from a position of strength. They’ll chatter these next months about getting back to their Reaganite roots, but, as Peter King understands, Reaganism needs a Reagan, and there isn’t one among them.

Q: What If . . .