Strange Bedfellow

Impeachment Redux

Flytrap is forgotten but not gone.

Pop Quiz:

1. Why were Betty Currie’s cell phone records important?

2. What was the Gorton-Lieberman plan and what happened to it?

I’ll wager that 1) you don’t know the answers; and 2) you don’t care. And that is the news. (If you are genuinely curious about the answers, click.)

An anniversary passed strangely and happily without notice this week: Six months ago, the president was impeached. During the Flytrap hullabaloo, commentators promised that the country would spend years pondering the meaning of this impeachment. They could not have been more wrong. It’s been half a year since impeachment and four months since acquittal, but it might as well be a generation for all that America has thought about it. Americans don’t gossip about it, pollsters don’t poll about it, pundits don’t pund about it, the torrent of Nexis articles has dried to a trickle, and even the mythical Washington dinner party is devoid of impeachment talk.

“Even the senators I have been talking to say they haven’t thought about it at all. They had an active desire to rid their memory of it. The level of traumatic amnesia is quite remarkable,” says Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who studies impeachment.

Flytrap followed the increasingly typical pattern of the modern media event. It was exaggerated beyond reason while it was unfolding. America overdosed on it. As soon as it ended, the sand castle washed away, supplanted by the next big thing. (See also: the Gulf War. Supposedly the defining event of the post-Cold War world, the Gulf brouhaha disappeared moments after the fighting stopped and left no lasting impact on American politics.)

Impeachment may be forgotten, but it’s not gone. It lingers sourly but not in quite the ways anyone expected. There were two consensus predictions about how Flytrap would change American politics: It would make Clinton a lame duck and murder congressional Republicans at the polls in 2000. But the president’s approval ratings remain high, and he has been able to prosecute a war almost single-handedly. And Democrats have all but surrendered the idea that impeachment can be a campaign winner. They fund-raised off impeachment immediately after the trial, but Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Patrick Kennedy has abandoned his plan to make impeachment the centerpiece of Democratic House campaigns. “People are not so focused on impeachment that they would come into the voting booths in November 2000 and say, ‘Aha, he was for impeachment,’ and vote against him,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

Impeachment continues to distort politics, but not as itself. It is Masked Impeachment, Sublimated Impeachment. The House Republicans, seething with rage at the lech in chief, are the most potent example. They didn’t trust Clinton much before Flytrap. Now they don’t trust him at all, and they yearn to nail him once and for all. During the Kosovo crisis, which Republicans privately called “Clinton’s war,” GOP opposition to intervention stemmed as much from a desire to beat Clinton as from any principle. “The House Republican effort to undermine the war was a continuation of impeachment,” sniffs one White Houser.

Flytrap also bears some responsibility for Washington’s paralysis. The personal rancor fomented by impeachment blocks bipartisan cooperation. Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee remain at each other’s throats. The president, still furious at the House’s indictment of him, doesn’t work with House Republicans. And Democrats, who want to run against the do-nothing Republicans in 2000, are happy to stall major legislation. (Impeachment, of course, is hardly the sole cause of paralysis. Some Republicans are content to delay big legislation till George W. Bush’s presidential inauguration. Kosovo intruded during the few months when major bills could have been considered. And the GOP majority is so thin and fractured that passing contentious legislation was almost certainly impossible, even if there had been time.)

Impeachment has also frozen the Senate but for a less ominous reason. Unlike the House, which finished impeachment in December, the Senate lost the first two months of its current session to the trial. This massively delayed planning and bill-writing, a traffic jam that still has not cleared.

Impeachment is twisting the presidential race, too. Al Gore, born to suffer for Bill Clinton’s sins, is bearing the cross for Flytrap. Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center cites Gore’s poor ratings in head-to-heads against Bush as evidence that the veep is a victim of “Clinton fatigue.” And the only discernible reason Bill Bradley–a Gore clone in both middle-road policy and stump awkwardness–is polling 25 percent of Democratic voters is that he is independent of the Clinton scandal machine.

I mpeachment so haunts Gore that he has designed his entire campaign around neutralizing it. Had Flytrap never occurred, Gore surely would be running on the Clinton-Gore economic boom. Instead, he has placed family values and personal morality at the heart of his platform, and the first act of his campaign was to schedule a series of interviews in which he denounced Clinton’s behavior.

The Republican presidential campaign is being shaped by the I-word as well. Anti-Clinton rage benefits House Republicans in the conservative districts they represent. But anti-Clintonism is not a tenable national strategy. Party leaders have anointed Bush because he is mercifully disconnected from Flytrap. In Bush, they have a candidate who can preach the winning message of Flytrap (morality good, lechery bad) but isn’t associated with the screeching House impeachers who are so unpopular nationwide.

Impeachment may be, in the words of pollster John Zogby, the “Great Unmentionable.” Politicians will make it a hidden foundation of their strategy, will imply and suggest and insinuate. Republicans will hint at Democratic immorality, Democrats will poke at Republican obsessive nuttiness. The points will be scored obliquely, but almost no one will risk the word itself.