Few want it, but go he must

Next to nuclear war, the most important thing we do is impeachment of the President
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THE MORE tumultuous the political storm around President Clinton, it seems, the quieter the circle at its centre. Now that the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, has suddenly delivered his report, what happens next is - to adapt a phrase from Mr Clinton's televised "confession" - between the President, the US Congress and their God. But Congress, with less than two months to go before elections, has become strangely reticent.

An air of extreme gravity has descended on Capitol Hill. Any railing about morality and credibility is now hushed; it is too close to the mark, too dangerous. Listen to the leader of the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives, Dick Gephardt: "Next to declaring war, the most important thing we have to do is the impeachment of the President."

His Republican opposite number, the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, insists that impeachment hearings would not start until the New Year "at the earliest". He would also like to make the Starr report public. Anything to share the responsibility and put off the evil day.

Impeachment, it has been well said, is the "nuclear bomb" of American politics. It is the weapon of last resort, the weapon that no one wants to use without irrefutable proof of cardinal wrongdoing, the weapon that could rebound to annihilating effect on any who are deemed to brandish it frivolously.

As was stressed by Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House judiciary committee - the body that could take its first formal look at the report as early as today - Congress intends to play any impeachment process exactly by the book. If it must move in that direction, it wants to move slowly and deliberately. But the truth is that almost no-one who has the power of impeachment really wants to use it: at this time, against this President, in this case.

The time suits no one. Even three months ago, the Democrats had hopes of perhaps recapturing the Senate from Republican control in November. At the very least they had expected gains that would reflect the strength of the economy and the popularity of the President, gains that would strengthen their legislative bargaining power and set them up for the presidential race in the year 2000.

The Republicans would have been happy to see Mr Clinton's popularity dented, but not his presidency in peril. They could wish for a strong performance at the polls, but not one that endangered a President they had learnt to do business with, not one that might catapult to power prematurely a Vice-President they had hoped to defeat in the year 2000. The United States, Americans never tire of telling Europeans, is not a parliamentary democracy; mid-term elections are not a referendum on the President. This time, though, they could turn into just that.

The President is well liked, in Congress as in the country. Even some of his avowed enemies say that they cannot but like the man. Few question his competence in office or his mastery of the political arts. And so long as Mr Clinton's public opinion poll ratings hold up, so long as he is credited with the strength of the US economy and positive national feelings (even the latest baseball record), Congress will be reluctant to move against him, lest they be blamed for precipitating a national crisis unnecessarily.

The nature of the case is a further disincentive. To many, especially male, members of the predominantly male Congress, this is - for all its complexity - still fundamentally a sex case: an instance of a man with a known weakness who succumbed to temptation and then engaged in multiple contortions to keep his fall secret. Many a member of Congress quakes at the prospect of his own indiscretions becoming public in such a manner; some - like Mr Gingrich and, most recently, Dan Burton - already know how it feels.

Even as they ponder a leisurely timetable for impeachment hearings that would not start until the new Congress convenes in the New Year, the current Congress risks being overtaken by events.

The election campaign, barely under way, is already dominated by the President's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Democratic candidates find themselves quizzed on their views; Republicans - those who qualify - are campaigning on the morality ticket. And some candidates are asking Mr Clinton to stay away from their events: his formidable fund-raising capacity, they feel, is not worth the moral baggage he would bring.

Nor may this President's popularity be as secure a protection as has been thought. His personal approval rating is now below 30 per cent, and his professional rating has slipped more than 10 points to 56 per cent since he admitted his "not appropriate relationship" last month. His every public appearance now is prefaced by some expression of contrition: a change in tone and substance that this President would not have adopted without advice that it was absolutely necessary. This is not exactly the approach of a confident - or confidence-inspiring - leader.

And is his case really "just about sex"? Did he tell the truth, "the whole truth", under oath? Was it just a "not appropriate relationship" or was it the sort of relationship that Americans, their legislators and their judges have ruled worthy of punishment? What recourse was available to any of those who lost their jobs and status - in big business, the academic world or the armed forces - following an indiscretion with a junior employee and the attendant lies? Could they say "I let you down. I let my family down. I let my country down. I'm sorry, and I'm trying to make it right", as President Clinton did again on Wednesday?

Finally, the word from the country is coming back to Washington that the voters are reconsidering the details - however sketchy - of what Mr Clinton has admitted and are asking whether they want a country where there is one standard for the people and another for the President.

So while members of this Congress may not want to take responsibility for starting impeachment proceedings, they may find themselves inexorably pushed in that direction. In a process that requires the judicial to be tempered by the political, the President's most political defences - the election timetable, his own popularity and the public perception of his offence - have begun to fail.

The one salvation for Congress might be a weakening of the President's political position so rapid and so complete as to render impeachment unnecessary. Constitutional purists prefer impeachment to resignation; power should be withdrawn, they say, by elected representatives. At this time, with this President, and in this case, however, even they might see resignation as the least bad outcome for a President who was given the chance in 1992 to put past sins behind him and failed.