The Storm Amid the Calm

The Framers of the Constitution, as we remember from our civics lessons, sought to design a government so well checked and balanced that it would resist the unruly passions of the multitude. During the impeachment of President Clinton by the House of Representatives, it was impossible not to feel that those expectations had been inverted. The frenzy was in the government, while public opinion remained a rock of stability. Indeed, throughout the past year, sensational events have come and gone, yet the public's judgment of President Clinton and what ought to be done about him has hardly changed. The storm rages, the pundits thunder, but the sea is quiet--people shake their heads, go about their business, and hope only that the unruly mob in their capital will calm down.

It is still too early to reach any definitive conclusions about the significance of the impeachment of President Clinton. As I write in late December, the House has voted two articles of impeachment, and there is debate about whether the Senate will hold a full trial. It seems virtually impossible that the Senate will convict the President, but the story thus far has taken so many improbable turns that only the reckless would predict the last act. After the Starr Report created a drumbeat for Clinton's resignation, the grand jury video was supposed to finish him off. Instead, it generated sympathy and support. The voters then defied expectations by giving the Democrats an edge in the congressional elections, and rather than Clinton falling, it was Gingrich who fell. No sooner had impeachment been pronounced dead than Republicans proceeded to impeach Clinton, in the midst of which the new speaker-elect, Robert Livingston, preemptively fell on his sword because of his own sexual infidelities.

And how did the public react to what was, after all, only the second impeachment of a president for "high crimes and misdemeanors" in American history? Clinton's approval ratings hit an all-time high of 72 percent, while the Republicans' ratings nose-dived.

A script with this plot would be too far-fetched even for Hollywood unless it was intended as a comedy. Of course, the Lewinsky scandal stopped being funny long before the last joke was told about the cigar or the blue dress. We have no choice but to regard impeachment as a grave constitutional matter and to be duly concerned about the procedures followed, the criteria invoked, and the precedents set. But the scandal and impeachment have also been a phenomenon of our political culture, and in that respect the events of the past year are in many ways patently ridiculous, in some ways ugly, and yet--dare I say this?--reassuring.

Since the 1960s, conservatives have been proclaiming that their values are America's values, whatever the picture of American culture and society created by an elite in Hollywood or New York. And while liberals have objected that the right's image of America was nostalgic and inaccurate, Reaganism in the 1980s and the rise of a Republican Congress in the 1990s seemed to validate the conservative insistence that theirs was the true heartbeat of America.

The Lewinsky affair has put to an unexpected test these claims about American moral values. From the beginning of the scandal, not just conservatives but the elite media as well expected the American people to be so outraged by Clinton's conduct that they would turn against him. The Starr Report rubbed our collective noses in the details of his sexual encounters; the grand jury video was intended to impress us with his squirming evasions. But the expected outrage never materialized. The opinion polls have shown large majorities consistently distinguishing Clinton's private conduct from his conduct as president; they think he is probably guilty of lying and other specific offenses but do not think those rise to the level justifying removal from office. They also disapprove of Kenneth Starr's actions as prosecutor; there is clearly a sense that his investigation has been fundamentally illegitimate, that Clinton was set up, and that many reasonable people would lie under the same circumstances. It is to take into account such considerations that we have jury trials, and it seems apparent--again, as of late December--that if we were to imagine the public sitting as a jury, it would have voted to throw out the case.

Conservatives can't understand this. They thought they not only knew America, but spoke for it. And it is all too obvious now that they don't.

Especially after Livingston's resignation, there was a great deal of talk about the rise of "neo-Puritanism" in America. But if neo-Puritanism means not just traditional views about sex and morals but a belief that private behavior ought to be subjected to public scrutiny, there is no evidence that such ideas are generally on the rise in America. There may be neo-Puritanism among conservatives and in the Republican Party, but the Republicans are paying dearly for that perception. Their censorious moral views have made them seem far out of the cultural mainstream, and for politicians who claim to speak not only for the country but also for the culture, that is a precarious place to be.

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Nonetheless, in defiance of public opinion, the Republicans in the House pulled the ultimate trigger in partisan combat. Impeachment is the domestic equivalent of a declaration of war. And just as it is politically dangerous to send troops to fight abroad without public or bipartisan support, so it is dicey for one party to impeach a president of the other in the face of public disapproval, without bipartisan cover, and without much chance of prevailing over the president in the end.

Was this recklessness or calculated daring on the Republicans' part? It is impossible as yet to assess the calculations that may have gone into the impeachment drive. Perhaps some of the Republican House leadership genuinely believed they could oust Clinton. Perhaps they believed that merely by impeaching Clinton, they could stain his reputation forever and deprive Democrats later of the credit for the prosperity and peace of the Clinton years. Perhaps they believed that with another election two years away, there was simply nothing to lose because Americans' memories are short and other events would intervene.

These are not absurd premises, but the Republicans' animus against Clinton suggests that their passions may well have misled them not only about the appropriate grounds for impeachment, but also about their own interests. Politicians only rarely get the attention of the public; when they do, they may define themselves for a long time to come. Gingrich could never escape the original impression he made, and the Republicans will have a hard time undoing the damage they have lately done to themselves. Perhaps their single greatest liability today is the perception that they are in the grip of right-wing Christian fundamentalists. They have now reinforced that image and made it more memorable by combining it with an element of vengeance and open disregard of the public will rarely seen in this country.

To be sure, it is a long way to the next election, but if nothing is accomplished in the next two years or, worse, if some major national problem such as a recession goes unaddressed, the Republicans will have defined themselves as the ones who shattered possibilities for cooperation between Congress and the White House and made productive decisionmaking nearly impossible. The public sees impeachment as a partisan act and believes that Republicans put their party's interest ahead of the nation's. Unless the Republicans change that perception, impeachment will be as much a stain on them as it is on Clinton.

Consequently, both the Republicans and President Clinton may come out of the impeachment tar pit with urgent needs to redeem themselves. Assuming he survives, Clinton will want to prove his continued "relevance" through some major initiative that can stand as his legacy, and the congressional Republicans will want something to take to the voters in 2000 to prove they are worth keeping in office. This could be the stuff of surprising compromises; one thinks back to the unusual chemistry in 1996 that produced the minimum-wage increase. But there are also dangers--deals to reform Social Security that could erode the system's equity and integrity; tax cuts that could erode the progressivity of fiscal policy and the government's future capacity to address the many problems that are now off the radar screen. For the past several years, right-wing moralism has loomed as so large a threat that it is easy to forget the risks to the country posed by horse traders in both parties who are a little too desperate for a deal.

But it is also hard to see how we will have any effective national leadership at all for the next two years. The fall of Gingrich and Livingston is evidence not just of personal flaws, but of structural problems in the House. The Republicans' majority in the House is so thin that the desertion of even a small number of their own party can bring down a speaker. First Gingrich faced abandonment by the uncompromising conservatives he called "cannibals." Then Livingston saw his support unravel among the same hard-line group after his confession of infidelity. The House of Representatives has not had a party clinging to only a five-seat majority for nearly a half century; whether the House can function this way, without real bipartisan cooperation, isn't clear, yet impeachment has, if anything, made cooperation across party lines more difficult than ever.

The Republicans are also haunted by the commitment they made in 1994 to a limit of three terms for committee chairs in the House. Livingston's original interest in becoming speaker stemmed from the approaching end of his chairmanship of the powerful appropriations committee. By fixing limits on positions, the Republicans have set off a perpetual scramble in their own ranks as members jostle for the next rung on the ladder. Add to this scramble the ideological divisions between cultural and free market conservatives and the disproportionate weight of the conservatives in Republican primaries, and it is hard to see how any coherent compromise positions can emerge from the Republican side.

The potential vacuum on the Democratic side is also apparent. Lame-duck presidents typically see their power erode. A lame-duck president who has only barely escaped removal from office should be even less capable of getting his own party, much less the nation, to accept his leadership on policy. And unless Gore sews up the nomination easily, the Democrats could be fractured by the approach of the 2000 presidential election.

Curiously, these political problems have relatively little to do with the actual substance of the real issues the country faces. One of the ironies of recent American political history is that the animosity between Democrats and Republicans seems to have
become more intense while the objective differences between the two parties have grown relatively small. This is reminiscent of American politics in the late nineteenth century, when there was intense partisanship even though there were no sharp ideological cleavages (comparable, for example, to the cleavages in Europe at the time).

In the nineteenth century, politics had a popular theatrical quality, and partisan crowds marched in the streets and even fought with each other. Today, as the impeachment battle so well illustrates, partisan animosities find no echo among the people; thankfully, we don't see Democrats and Republicans throwing rocks in street fights. The storm rages in Washington, and the sea is quiet. Of course, we might wish that rather than tossing rocks, people were more inclined to cast votes--too many who are turned off by the hysteria in the capital withdraw entirely from politics. But we may at least be grateful for the equilibrium the public has given our national life. Contrary to the Framers' expectation, the great force for sanity and stability in America today is the public's good sense.

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