February 22, 1999
Impeachment appeared futile, but it was rooted in sound political strategy
By Gregory P. Nowell
The House Republicans pressed for impeachment in the face of hostile polls, midterm election losses and numerical insufficiency in the Senate. Pundits and partisans may argue for years about their motivation for such a futile act of statecraft. But there is another possibility: As part of the party's quest for lower taxes and reduced federal power, the drive for impeachment may have been more pragmatic than it seems.
To hold power, House members depend not just on re-election but on reapportionment. Because safe districts can be redrawn every decade, House power in part depends on power at the state house.
In state after state, Republicans have prospered by offering tax cuts to win suburban voters, whose high turnouts defeat ethnic urban Democratic voters who favor social programs and the taxes they require. State budget surpluses can cement state Republican power, and that in turn helps Republicans hold control of the House of Representatives.
In the Clinton era, Democrats crafted a promising response to the tax-cut strategy. President Clinton signed on for welfare reform, shifting his party's emphasis to protecting the working poor rather than the hopeless poor. This is not the traditional Democratic Party emphasis, but it has two political benefits: The working poor vote a bit more than the destitute and their jobs give them moral standing with the middle class. A little redistribution in favor of the working poor isn't political poison in the suburbs.
Now, if state budget surpluses are the means of local political power and the hope of control of the House of Representatives, what could be of more political significance than a windfall to the states amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars? Enter the politics of tobacco.
Gouging the Goose
There are three possible strategies that can grow out of a sudden windfall of money from a settlement of state tobacco lawsuits.
The first is to target the money as a giant sin tax that can be used to reduce other taxes. This is a largely Republican strategy. It requires giving liability immunity to tobacco so as not to kill the goose and its golden eggs with lawsuits.
The second is to use the money to expand health benefits. This appeals to centrist and Southern members of the Democratic Party, including Clinton. It fits their desire to build a constituency among the working poor. This position requires enough tobacco money to get the health-care programs going. If revenues decline later, funding will be found elsewhere. If the goose lives, that works; if it dies slowly, that works too.
The third possible strategy is to garrote the goose with strict liability, heavy taxes, bans on advertising and more. Adherents are mostly in the left wing of the Democratic Party, but found in some numbers all across the political spectrum. Don't worry about the golden eggs, just kill the goose.
These three positions have proved hard to resolve into one successful party position. The division on tobacco has transformed a Southern regional issue into a struggle for power and money at all levels of government in the United States. Tobacco now constitutes one of the principal Democratic liabilities in the pivotal Southern states. It burdens the Republicans in the North and West, particularly in California.
Although it seems that every congressman had a story about President Clinton playing loose with the truth, the one incident that may have counted most involved tobacco.
Clinton's right-hand man, Bruce Lindsey, promised White House support for Republican efforts to get immunity from future liability lawsuits for the tobacco industry in the agreement to settle current suits. But the White House backed down under pressure from the anti-tobacco movement, including FDA Commissioner David Kessler, Rep. Henry Waxman and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
The highly volatile issue then split the Republican Party in the Senate, leaving the party publicly embarrassed and unable to deliver to the industry that is also one of its largest contributors.
Through the impeachment year, from January 1998 through February 1999, Clinton floated anti-smoking proposals and pursued the tobacco industry. The Justice Department suit announced last month would jack up liability payments to the federal government, further reduce tobacco sales and thereby reduce payments to the states. The FDA is trying to regulate tobacco as a drug. Justice also prosecutes illegal tobacco exports, and may sue the industry over allegations of price-fixing in the market for tobacco leaf.
When Republican leaders said they couldn't do business with Clinton, they were sincere.
An examination of campaign contributions, where politics meets economics, suggests the importance of tobacco in the impeachment process.
Look at the House Democrats who voted to impeach the President and look at the House Republicans who voted against at least one count or who repented in a letter to Sen. Trent Lott shortly thereafter. Pro-impeachment Democrats averaged eight times more tobacco money than did the anti-impeachment Republicans. On this "tobacco profile," pro-impeachment Democrats resembled regular Republicans, and anti-impeachment Republicans resembled regular Democrats.
A House Divided
The impeachment and trial of President Clinton was not just about sex. It was about the role of government, entitlement programs, taxation and power at the federal and state levels. And all that, except the sex, came together in tobacco politics.
Clinton's opportunistic retreat from the compromise with the tobacco industry made him a target that could not be ignored. Republicans in state capitols across the country want that money for tax cuts for their constituents, and they need the industry to remain healthy to provide that money.
Attacking the President who attacks tobacco may have been worth alienating 60% of the electorate if it weakened Clinton enough to slow down the attack on tobacco.
The weakened President now may not command the support to implement any tobacco attack strategy, with or without immunity from future liability suits. Though Democrats control the biggest state, California, Republicans hold governorships in 31 of the remaining 49, including all of the next nine biggest. Republican governors may be able to use the delay provided by impeachment to build tobacco money into their budgets in ways that will be difficult to reverse.
Battle Will Continue
Even if the damage from impeachment hands the House of Representatives back to the Democrats and confirms Al Gore's inheritance of the White House, that could still be the prelude to lasting Republican victory.
It is possible for Republicans to lose in 2000 and use tobacco-financed tax cuts to win the state-level fights for reapportionment. That would set the stage for a Republican comeback in Congress in 2002 and give the party a good chance of dominance in the next decade.
The biggest gamble for the Republicans lies in underestimating the opposition again. Clinton's attack on tobacco, combined with privately filed lawsuits, might give him leverage to package immunity for the tobacco industry with funding for a new health-care program.
Hold onto this thought about impeachment: It was much less personal than it looked. The political instability it symbolized was not an aberration, but reflected major fault lines in the polity. Instability and division are the new norms for American political life. The outlook for the 21st century is for more shifting electoral majorities, more uncertainty among business interests as to which party will be best positioned to support their goals, and a Presidency more reminiscent of the 19th century than the 20th.
------------------------------------------------------------------------ GREGORY P. NOWELL teaches political science at the State University of New York in Albany.