House Republicans, it seems, won’t be punished at the polls after all.

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IT SEEMED LIKE a pretty big deal at the time, the impeachment and acquittal of President Clinton. And so it was, as political spectacle, as a search in the U.S. Constitution for its fundamental meaning, as the climax of a long-running clash between a Republican Congress and a Democratic president. It will rank as one of the great political stories of the twentieth century. Yet now — not even 18 months later, as the first election since Clinton was acquitted fast approaches — it’s all but impossible to find so much as a lingering wisp of the Sturm und Drang of impeachment. In the 2000 elections, impeachment is the dog that isn’t barking.

For obvious reasons, it’s difficult to cite evidence of the disappearance (or perhaps non-emergence?) of impeachment as an issue. You end up pointing to the presence of an absence, and then speculating about its significance. But let’s start with the obvious: This is not what either the accusers or the defenders of the president expected.

The polls taken as the Monica Lewinsky drama unfolded consistently showed strong public opposition to Clinton’s impeachment and then to his removal. Although his personal approval ratings declined, his job approval ratings remained high. The message from this was quite clear to Democrats and Republicans alike.

Clinton was supported by public opinion, and the Republicans in Congress were defying it.  Naturally, this balance produced threats from Democrats about the reprisals Republicans would face. A reckoning was coming, scheduled specifically for November 2000.

Clinton would have an obvious stake not only in seeing his chosen successor, Al Gore, reach the White House, but in returning control over Congress (lost on his watch) to the Democrats. The latter, especially, would constitute a blow to the legitimacy of the House impeachment vote. A web-based organization called MoveOn made headlines by claiming it had received $ 13 million, in online pledges, for targeting members of Congress who voted for impeachment.

A little more than a week before Clinton’s then-certain acquittal, the New York Times ran a story that vented the thirst for revenge felt in some quarters of the White House. The Times quoted “one advisor who has discussed the matter with Clinton”: “He knows the districts, he knows the candidates, and he doesn’t like these people. . . . He’s obviously real hot on the [House impeachment] managers. He thinks winning back the House is part of his legacy.” And from “one senior Clinton strategist”: “Every one of those distinguished citizens is now on record saying they not only want to shut the government down but they want to kick the president out. That vote won’t go away. And if they think the American people will forget about that, they should go and ask former president Gerald Ford. They will remember that.”

Nor did Republicans treat such statements as mere partisan bluster. They, too, believed the polls. Though there were, to be sure, areas of the country sufficiently unfriendly to Bill Clinton to favor his removal, and they tended for obvious reasons to have Republican representatives, many Republicans not blessed with safe seats believed they were courting disaster with voters. Some went so far as to issue statements explaining that their consciences had compelled them to do what their political instincts warned them against. Henry Hyde’s mordant wit as chief House manager nicely encapsulated his sense that he was doing his duty as he saw it, notwithstanding popular opposition: “I know, oh, do I know, what an annoyance we are in the bosom of this great body, but we are a constitutional annoyance. And I remind you of that fact.” So predominant was public opinion that many Democrats in the House and Senate cited the president’s high job approval rating itself as a sufficient reason not to impeach or convict.

Majorities of Americans disapproved, in particular, of the impeachment vote; in general, of Republicans’ “handling” of the matter; and generically, of Republicans. Polls asking people whether they planned to vote for a Republican or Democrat for Congress tilted sharply in favor of Democrats, reaching about a 9 percent Democratic lead in most surveys. Even proprietary GOP polling by Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates in early 1999 offered little comfort to Republicans. It found 36 percent of Americans saying that impeachment “will be a factor” in the 2000 congressional elections and, of them, 51 percent would be either “much less likely” or “somewhat less likely” to “vote for your representative if you knew they voted to impeach Bill Clinton.” The total of “much more likely” and “somewhat more likely” was 48 percent. If, in short, Republicans were gloomy and Democrats gleeful, there was ample justification in the polls for their respective sentiments.

But that was then. Anyone looking at the answers to the same kinds of poll questions now has to be struck by how the public’s feelings have changed. One may argue over what such a shift means, but the absence of any continuity from 18 months ago is indisputable. It’s almost as if the United States changed electorates sometime between the impeachment votes and now.

Start with the generic congressional ballot: Republicans are now running even or ahead in most polls. That Fabrizio, McLaughlin polling question the GOP once found so worrisome shows a slight decline in the number of people who say impeachment “will be a factor” in their congressional vote, from 36 percent to 34 percent, but a huge swing among those who say it will be a factor in favor of the GOP. From 48 percent in 1999, now 67 percent say that a vote in favor of impeachment would make them “much more” or “somewhat more likely” to vote for their representative, while only 26 percent say such a vote would make them “much less” or “somewhat less likely” to do so.

And when voters are asked directly about impeachment, the results are nothing short of astonishing. In December 1998, Gallup asked adults whether they approved or disapproved of the House vote to impeach. Sixty-three percent disapproved and 35 percent approved. The same question a year later yielded 50 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval. An April Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll asked registered voters whether “the decision of the U.S. House of Representatives to impeach President Clinton was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do.” They said “right thing” by a margin of 49-44. In December 1998, the same pollsters had asked, if the House voted to impeach Clinton, should the Senate then vote to convict and remove him. The response was no, 57-37. In April 2000, the response to the question of whether the Senate vote to acquit was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do was a statistical tie, with a narrow 47-46 plurality actually saying “wrong thing.”

At the anecdotal level, the promised targeting of Republicans seems to have been overblown. The initial flush of reporting identified Steve Chabot of Ohio and Bob Barr of Georgia as potential Democratic targets, but neither now appears much in danger. Most managers were (perhaps not coincidentally) from relatively safe Republican seats, and only one, Jim Rogan of California, looks like he faces serious reelection trouble. And while impeachment has generated big contributions for his opponent, Adam Schiff, it has also generated big contributions for Rogan. Given the stakes and the narrowness of the GOP majority, this highly competitive district would have been fiercely contested even without impeachment. And as far as the two campaigns are concerned, Rogan is finding it advantageous to play up his role as impeachment prosecutor and Schiff is looking for other issues. Jim Wilkinson, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says the key point is, “Schiff isn’t talking about it” — because the impeachment issue has no salience. Eric Smith, his counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says, by contrast, Schiff “doesn’t have to bring it up” — voters are aware of Rogan’s role, and it “removed the veneer of moderation” from him.

More likely, the DCCC has concluded there’s no impeachment backlash for a candidate to run on. Smith says, “we don’t test impeachment in our polls.” But it doesn’t make sense that the DCCC would let the issue go unexplored if Democrats thought they had something they could campaign on and win with. As for MoveOn, the online impeachment avengers, the last press release posted on the organization’s website is dated June 30, 1999. Moving on, indeed.

Republicans have reason to find these developments cheering. Yet it would be dangerous to read the evolution of public attitudes as an after-the-fact endorsement of the GOP. What’s really on people’s minds here is something about which the polling data have only so much to say.

The subject is necessarily speculative. But it’s probably worth noting that Americans have a generally sunny sense of their own history, expressed in the sentiment that things usually turn out for the best. In accordance with this sentiment, while majorities may not have wanted Bill Clinton to be impeached, in retrospect the fact that he was doesn’t look so bad. Second, Clinton’s departure from office is drawing nearer by the day, and so it’s possible people are finding it easier to bring to mind a White House without him in it.

More fundamentally, though, there is the question of how seriously engaged the electorate really was and is. Again, this is an area for speculation. Are voters willing to forgive Republicans in the House for impeachment only because the Senate acquitted him? If the Senate had voted to remove him, would the electorate now be mad as hell about it? Well, could be — but that is hard to square with current sentiment that favors the idea of his removal. At the time, voters seemed to be as firmly and consistently resolved on the question of impeachment as public opinion ever is, on any subject. Yet this firm and consistent opinion was not accompanied by any public desire to punish those politicians who defied it. So, how deep, really, was the public’s conviction that impeachment was wrong? Is the electorate’s current view of the impeachment more a matter of forgiveness (of Republicans) or forgetfulness (about the whole thing)?

Consider it from another angle: Suppose in the fall of 1998, the economy had turned sour and President Clinton’s job approval rating simultaneously dropped sharply. Would anyone have believed that the drop was a result of the American people suddenly waking up to the seriousness of the offenses the House was then considering? In short, did Americans — apart from the relatively small minority on both sides who take politics seriously and follow it closely — ever really think those seemingly momentous events in Washington mattered much at all? Did they rally to the defense of the president — or to the defense of a status quo of unprecedented comfort, peace, and prosperity against the possibility of disruption?

When people said “move on,” perhaps what they meant was only “move on.” Not, we must rally round the president to save the Constitution; not, the president is being unjustly persecuted; not, his actions are reprehensible but not impeachable; not, he is only human and he has apologized; not, he has suffered enough. Just “move on.”

Bill Clinton may urgently desire the return of the House to Democratic control in 2000 as a counterbalance to impeachment in history’s judgment of him — an electoral repudiation of the GOP majority that tried to oust him. By now, though, the combined weight of anecdote and polling data clearly indicates that if Democrats do regain the House this year, it will have nothing to do with Clinton’s impeachment. Similarly, if Republicans maintain their majority, it will not be because the country has suddenly embraced the GOP view of Bill Clinton.

If Democrats win, Clinton will try to spin it differently, of course — as a national referendum on him and his persecutors resulting in his complete vindication. But then, he has never been one to underestimate his own importance in the grand scheme of things.