Republicans to the rescue

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The Independent Online
WHEN ORRIN Hatch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee,appealed to President Bill Clinton to "pour out his heart" to the American people and held out the prospect of mercy, he was not going out on a limb. He made a point of saying that his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Henry Hyde, would probably agree with him. So would a large number, perhaps even a majority, of Republicans both in Congress and in the country at large.

For anyone schooled in British politics, such an Opposition overture to get an embattled leader off the hook seems almost inconceivable, still less when it comes from the chairman of a committee that would constitutionally be his judge in an impeachment. If the leader of the ruling party has painted himself into a corner, now is surely the time to go in for the kill, not extend a helping hand.

In the United States, however, there are reasons of principle and practical politics why that argument does not apply.

While the President is nominated and campaigns on a party ticket, he becomes on election both chief executive, trying to get legislation of his choosing through Congress, but also head of state, duty-bound to represent not just his party, but the country. Getting rid of a president thus becomes a national rather than a party political issue.

Even in an age notorious for popular cynicism towards politics and all its works, Americans retain a respect - even awe - for the institution of the presidency. Impeaching a president is not something to be undertaken lightly, nor is it something that automatically generates popular approval. Democrats as well as Republicans felt the loss after Richard Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment.

The possibility that the US might lose two presidents by impeachment, or the threat of it, is widely seen as a national disgrace. What claim can the US have to world leadership, even to hold its head up internationally, if its leaders are judicially and/or morally discredited, is a view heard repeatedly.

There is also a pervasive sadness about Mr Clinton's predicament that makes even die-hard Republicans want the allegations not to be true; especially, they want him not to have lied. Bill Clinton is genuinely liked and respected for his engaging manner, his political skills, even his principles. There is regret that someone so prodigiously talented should have got himself in such a mess.

But the Republicans, it must be said, also have selfish practical reasons for wanting Mr Clinton to complete his term, and not only because they have reached a modus vivendi with him in Congress that is to their benefit as well as his. If Mr Clinton were to leave office for what are in effect moral reasons, the Republican Party could be deeply and openly split between those who wanted to go easy on the President, and those of the religious fundamentalist tendency that want a stronger moral line.

The Moral Majority would be back with a vengeance and the ensuing divisions would persist through this autumn's mid-term elections probably until the next presidential campaign.

That campaign is the other reason why Republicans are keen to keep Mr Clinton in office. Should he resign, Vice-President Al Gore would automatically become president for the remainder of Mr Clinton's term.

There would not be an immediate election. That would give Mr Gore a head start for the next presidential campaign in the year 2000.

Republicans would prefer to see Democrats fielding an Al Gore who campaigns poorly and carries the liability of a tarnished predecessor. They would then be able to unite against a Clinton legacy of `sleaze' and low morals.

As incumbent, Al Gore would be that much more difficult to beat. He might have learnt how to campaign effectively and he might have built up a political record of his own.

How far Republicans are motivated by considerations of high principle as opposed to low pragmatism is open to question. But the combination offers Mr Clinton allies he sorely needs.