The Veep and the Big Creep

The decision to impeach may turn on the investigation into Al Gore's wrongdoings

WASHINGTON— The political theme this election season is turning out to be all porn, all the time. Just as Republicans have already started to snake-bite their opponents with the president's sexcapades, the Democrats appear to have come up with their own lewd plan. Showing weakness in the polls, they want to fight back by depicting Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr and key Republicans as a bunch of dirty old men pulling a Pee-Wee Herman in the back of an adult theater. And everybody else, it seems—Henry Hyde, Dan Burton, etc.—is subject to having their past peccadilloes exposed.

The Democrats think that by raising the stakes they can escape any real possibility of impeachment. They still believe, as one congressman speaking on the condition of anonymity said, that Clinton's deep emotional bond with the American public will defeat impeachment. "Clinton has really touched a lot of hearts of Americans," the congressman said. "An awful lot of people just won't buy this." As for the Republicans, their hysteria over sexual content may knock them off track—don't forget how uncomfortable these guys got while being forced to discuss the famous Coke can that was adorned with Clarence Thomas's pubic hair.

Now that Starr's report and most of the supporting materials have been made public, both sides have abandoned all pretense of bipartisanship and settled in for a protracted struggle. Of course, nobody can predict what will happen in such a volatile situation, but conversations with Democratic sources who have long worked inside the Beltway suggest one likely scenario. The House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings—probably after the election—and vote for impeachment along party lines. The full House will then take up the matter and also vote for impeachment—again, along party lines. The outcome of a trial in the Senate, probably next spring, is anybody's guess.

Lurking in the background: Al Gore might have to step up sooner than expected
AP/ Wide World
Lurking in the background: Al Gore might have to step up sooner than expected

The wild card in any scenario is Starr himself. His grand jury is still in session, and some legal observers believe he will now move to indict several lesser White House figures, possibly Clinton's key lawyer, Bruce Lindsay, and presidential secretary Betty Currie, along with Bill's backroom bud Vernon Jordan. There also has been considerable discussion over whether Starr could indict the president, but this would end up being fought out within the context of much larger constitutional issues.

The wider political landscape is also a critical factor in determining how impeachment proceedings will play out. Republicans have hesitated all year to push impeachment for fear that removal would give Vice President Al Gore two years to consolidate power and then easily go on to win the presidency in 2000.

But almost simultaneously with the conclusion of Starr's investigation came Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to launch a preliminary probe of Gore's role in soliciting funds for the Democrats during the 1996 campaign. Now Gore may end up with his own special prosecutor, and his luster as a presidential candidate is quickly tarnishing. This has changed the dynamic on Capitol Hill—other Democrats are now starting to emerge as strong presidential contenders. Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, whose prior campaigns for the presidency never got far off the launching pad, is now much better positioned. And there is talk that former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, Nebraska's Bob Kerrey, and even Mario Cuomo—the last as a sort of moral voice outside the Beltway—are gaining on Gore.

Recent events also indicate the reinvention of Gingrich, giving a shot in the arm to the Speaker's presidential prospects. All next year Newt will be center stage in the impeachment proceedings. The Republicans want to drag out those proceedings as long as possible, keeping Clinton captive and hoping to find something that will tie in Gore. Most important, the Republicans, with increased margins in both the House and Senate, and a lifeless president before them, will finally be able to push forward their social and political program as an unopposed juggernaut. That means privatizing Social Security, turning the income tax into a flat tax, nixing the Department of Education (possibly ending federal aid for schools), and dramatically stepping up defense spending.

The 90-day preliminary inquiry that Reno ordered last month will look into whether the vice president lied to investigators in 1997 when he was questioned about his telephone solicitations to campaign donors from the White House. While Gore and his lawyers maintain that the VP has done nothing wrong, there is evidence that he solicited "hard money" (campaign funds that are used to directly support candidates) from his government office—a clear violation of federal election law.

Gore has denied any knowledge of how the money he helped raise was going to be used, and therefore any knowledge that he might have been breaking the law. But a belatedly produced 1995 White House memo suggests that Gore and other campaign officials had discussed exactly what to do with that cash. Various witnesses have also said Gore could have known that the funds were being diverted to hard-money accounts.

While this inquiry sounds narrow, and too inside-baseball to capture the public imagination like the Starr Report has, it could easily widen into a lengthy and broad investigation of Gore's activities. Such a probe could expose the shady political players that Gore has associated with, and further dampen his presidential prospects.

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