One political force is more determined than any other to drive President Clinton from office for his behavior, and the same force would be the big political gainer if he is removed. That is the Christian right.
Elizabeth Drew, writing in The Washington Post last week, said that the President ''will be impeached.'' One reason, she said, is that ''the ever-stronger Republican base, the Christian right, demands that it happen, and few Republicans will risk crossing them. This is more important to most Republicans than the President's job approval ratings.''
Impeachment needs only a simple majority in the House. Conviction in the Senate, requiring a two-thirds vote, is much less likely. But even impeachment -- the course on which House Republicans seem to be set -- would have enormous consequences for our politics.
The Christian Coalition and other religious conservatives would become still more influential in the Republican Party. In recent years they have had a disproportionate voice in the writing of the party platform and in Presidential primaries. In the year 2000 they might well control the choice of the nominee.
George W. Bush, the centrist Governor of Texas whom many regard as the front-runner for 2000, said the other day that seeing Washington in its uproar over Monica Lewinsky made him wonder about running for President. In any event, he could have trouble winning the nomination in a convention dominated by the right, whatever his poll numbers.
The shift to the right would be just as consequential in Congressional policy terms. The social issues that mean so much to religious conservatives -- the issues that President Reagan pushed aside to concentrate on economic policy -- would come to the fore.
Abortion would be targeted for a range of new restrictions, including even a constitutional amendment to outlaw it. And concern with sexual matters would not be likely to stop there. There would be legislation to limit U.S. help for population control efforts around the world. Federal regulations to give equal treatment to homosexuals would be another target. The law forbidding grants to ''indecent'' art could be expanded to other fields.
Criminal law is another possible area for punitive moralism. House Republicans have already acted under cover of the Lewinsky turmoil to try to sneak a harsh new measure on juvenile crime onto the statute books. They have attached to a non-controversial bill a rider requiring the states, among other things, to put more children in prison with adult criminals.
If you think about all those things, it is clear that there is an effort under way to bring about a fundamental change in the political direction of this country, effectively changing the results of our last two national elections. It would be a coup d'etat.
Long before Linda Tripp gave her tapes to Kenneth Starr, there really was a right-wing conspiracy of sorts to bring down this President. Richard Mellon Scaife gave The American Spectator millions for its Arkansas Project to find dirt on Bill Clinton. Crazies spread tales that he was involved in murder and drug-smuggling. Conservative groups financed Paula Jones's lawsuit against the President. (Her lawyers hired as investigators members of a Texas church that tried to remove ''Moby Dick'' and ''To Kill a Mockingbird'' from the local high school reading list.)
It was President Clinton's arrogant folly that opened the way for the religious right and others long frustrated in their desire to destroy him. And they are dead serious in their determination to exploit the opportunity he gave them.
The outside world looks with astonishment at what is happening here. A columnist of The Financial Times of London, Philip Stevens, put it: ''As the days pass, the proposition that the most powerful nation on earth could sacrifice its leader to lies about his sex life becomes ever more eccentric.''
Many Americans who do not agree with the religious right -- who want this to remain an open and tolerant society -- are unhappy about President Clinton's conduct. But as we consider how to deal with it, we have to be aware of the political consequences.