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It didn’t much matter which network you tuned into last night, the story was the same everywhere in TV-land.

Clinton won. The Republicans lost. Impeachment is dead.

I’m sitting here trying to figure out why.

I thought before the election we were told by these same people — and the White House — that the vote was NOT a referendum on Clinton and impeachment. It must be nice to win either way.

The other thought I’m having is what difference the election should make with regard to the guilt or innocence of President Clinton. Even if the American people were sending an unambiguous message yesterday that Clinton should skate, why should that affect the vote of the House of Representatives or the Senate on the question of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by the president?

Even the most rabid Clinton defender, I would think, would be hard-pressed to make the case that the modest shift in the balance of power in the Congress somehow represents a mandate for clearing Clinton. In fact, exit polls show far more people were motivated to go to the polls by their conviction that Clinton needs to go than by a conviction that he should remain in office.

But all of that is really quite irrelevant — or should be.

The real issue remains: Is Clinton guilty of perjury, obstruction of justice and other offenses, perhaps yet unnamed? The election is beside the point. And that’s the way the Republicans need to play this if they have any hope of recovering from the missed opportunity of 1998.

I could see this Republican debacle coming months ago. Grass-roots Republican activists felt betrayed by their elected leaders who had for too long tolerated Clinton’s abuses of office. At the same time, they were repulsed by the congressional leadership’s (I’ll be kind) timid policy agenda.

In short, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott sold out their base. They refused to push tax cuts. They showed no interest in returning the country to its legacy of a constitutional republic. They compromised. They lied. They played ball with Clinton rather than challenge him — whether the issue was the Clinton scandals or the direction of the country generally.

The Republicans badly misplayed their hand. But rather than surrender by dropping the impeachment inquiry, the Republicans ought to understand that an aggressive investigation is needed more now than ever — if not for the good of the country, certainly for their own political rebound.

If Republicans act like losers, they will be losers in the future. If they begin acting like they really do control both houses of Congress, as they do, the base support they have lost since 1994 might just return.

The most important thing they need to do is act. No more sitting around waiting for the year 2000. Take advantage of the opportunity America has given you. It may not last. It certainly won’t if you squander it as you have since 1996. Seize the moment. Surprise your opposition with some backbone — some courage, for a change. Don’t be predictable. The Democrats are expecting the Republicans to cave in to their calls for a “censure” of Clinton — probably by as early as this morning. If they get what they expect, the Democrats have indeed pulled off an amazing feat — they will have turned a national election “wash” into a stunning victory. They will have turned their minority status in Congress into effective control.

So what do I expect?

I admit, it’s difficult to underrate the foresight and boldness of Gingrich and Lott. Chances are good that they won’t listen to me. More likely they will listen to their well-wishers at ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN.

That will mean disaster for the GOP and tragedy for America. All the rules of right and wrong will have to be rewritten. All bets will be off. Clinton will be free to pursue his political enemies with ruthless and reckless abandon. All the powers of the police state will be unloosed — and if Gingrich and Lott think they will be left unscathed, they are badly mistaken.

More than ever, this election demonstrates why Clinton must be forced from office for his crimes and cover-ups. The country, at least as we have known it for the last 200 years, simply may not be able to survive until January 2001 if he is not.

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