In six weeks, a minority of the nation's eligible voters will decide whether the president is to be impeached by the House and removed from office by the Senate.
Few candidates are ready to deal with the gut issue of this November's election. Republican candidates talk about truthfulness, and Democrats issue fervent pleas to get on with the nation's business. But nobody will come out and say, "If elected, I will vote to impeach that hairsplitting perjurer" or, contrariwise, "Those Bible-thumping hypocrites will throw out Bill Clinton over my dead body."The public pussyfooting by the candidates who will be entrusted with the punishment of the admitted miscreant has two causes:
1. No Democrat inclined to defend the president knows what else is in the scandal pipeline. Does Ken Starr have anything else on Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate? Will courts reinstate the Paula Jones case or hold Clinton in contempt? Will a new independent counsel find cover-up of Clinton-Gore campaign lawbreaking?
2. No Republican inclined to remove the president knows if his high job approval outweighs his dropping personal approval in voters' minds. Are likely voters disgusted with the perpetrator or the messengers? Will taking a position seem like prejudgment?
Result: Both sides are submerging the key issue in this election. Candidates go into pious contortions to avoid Topic A. And yet we all know what would happen if the Democrats picked up 12 seats in the House.
Rep. John Conyers would replace Rep. Henry Hyde as House Judiciary chairman, and Rep. Barney Frank, speaking for the new majority, would interpret the election as a national vote to forgive and not to impeach the president.
Let's say the House stays Republican, and its impeachment inquiry turns up abuses beyond Monica that produce a public consensus that Clinton has to go. Then his fate will be decided by his ability to marshal 34 out of 100 votes in the Senate to prevent removal.
The election this year will determine the size of the Clinton core. Consider Senate races crucial to Clinton survival in some of our largest states:
In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer does not want to be left an outlaw's in-law. Though polls have driven her to express mild anguish at behavior far worse than she used to excoriate furiously in Republican males, the Clintons can depend on her vote.
In cahoots with Janet Reno, Boxer punished San Diego prosecutor Charles La Bella for his stunning report daring to recommend an independent counsel in the campaign finance scandal. On cue from the White House, Boxer chose a far less qualified Hispanic-American to fill the job of U.S. Attorney that had been promised La Bella . If re-elected, she's a sure vote to acquit.
In Illinois, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun may be in difficulty for her affinity to Nigerian dictators but if re-elected is certain to stick with Clinton until the last dog dies.
In New York, there is at least a chance that either challenger Charles Schumer or incumbent Al D'Amato would vote his conscience, but the political heat on Schumer to leave Clinton untouched would be far greater.
Most candidates will shy away from the gut issue because they don't know how it will cut. But next year's impeachment is in the hands of this year's voters. They will make it possible - or impossible - to bring Bill Clinton to account.