On Capitol Hill, the Republicans pushed through an open-ended investigation of l'affaire Lewinsky and related (or unrelated) matters, which they justified by repeatedly invoking the precedent of Watergate. Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, wrapping up the case for unlimited hearings, argued that in each instance what mattered was the issue of presidential cover-up, since the precipitating events were uniformly unimportant: "Watergate," he told us, "was about a third-rate burglary."
The problem with this argument is that it is based on a first-rate historical distortion. The break-in - an attempt to photograph documents and install bugging devices at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex - may have been third-rate in execution, but it was intended as political espionage of the first magnitude. Indeed, what Richard Nixon was covering up was an elaborate plot to subvert the Democrats' ability to wage an effective presidential campaign against him, including dirty tricks that so succeeded in wounding their most electable candidate, Senator Ed Muskie, that he dropped out of the race. The third-rate burglary resulted in some first-rate prison time for its perpetrators, including the general counsel and the security chief of Nixon's re-election campaign. And the subsequent cover-up that Nixon ordered dragooned the CIA into misleading the Justice Department investigators.
As to the precipitating crime in the Lewinsky affair - there isn't one. The events that Bill Clinton was plainly bent on covering up (not by misusing the CIA but by lying under oath) were personally embarrassing and politically damaging, but not even Kenneth Starr has alleged that the orals in the Oval were illegal.
Indeed, as a subject for investigation, the Lewinsky case raises questions that if anything are the opposite of those raised by Watergate. In deciding what to do about Watergate, the Rodino-led Judiciary Committee of 1974 agreed on what the law said and differed over the meaning of the facts. When the Supreme Court ordered the release of the tapes containing the "smoking gun" - Nixon's order to have the CIA obstruct the investigation - all 38 members of the Judiciary Committee agreed that this met the legal criteria for an impeachable offense.
In the current controversy, by contrast, the Hyde-led Judiciary Committee pretty much agrees on the meaning of the facts, and splits along party lines as to what the law is. To dramatize this very point, Judiciary Committee member Howard Berman, the San Fernando Valley Democrat, offered a wily substitute resolution last week that stipulated to the accuracy of all the allegations in the Starr Report, and called upon the committee to first determine if any of them rose to the level of an impeachable offense. This, of course, would have cut short the Republicans' fishing expedition, and it failed on a party-line vote.
Over the past few days, however, it's become clear that the GOP's determination to subject the nation to a full-fledged presidential-impeachment process has engendered two distinct backlashes. The first is public: New polling by the Washington Post, conducted after last Thursday's House vote to authorize hearings, shows that support for the Republican Congress is in clear decline. Two weeks ago, a Post poll of likely voters uncovered equal levels of support - 47 percent to 47 percent - for Democratic and Republican House candidates. In a new poll conducted this past weekend, however, the number of likely voters who said they'd vote Democratic rose to 51 percent, while those who said they'd vote Republican declined to 42 percent. In a year as fluid, not to say crazy, as this one, this may just be this week's epiphenomenon. Or it may be, in a replay of their 1995 government shutdown, that Gingrich & Co. are self-destructing once again.
The second backlash against the impeachniks is occurring within the American elites. Pundits ranging from Charles Krauthammer on the center-right to Thomas L. Friedman and E.J. Dionne Jr. on the center-left to John Kenneth Galbraith on the left - among numerous others - have all taken to the op-ed pages over the past week or two with the same message: The world is melting down. We stand at the brink of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. This is no time to preoccupy ourselves with a glorified sex scandal.