Acquittal? More Like a Cease Fire

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

February 14, 1999

It’s over. But is it really?

A little more than a year ago, there was a certainty in Washington: If President Clinton really did what he was alleged to have done with Monica Lewinsky, his presidency was finished. He would resign in disgrace, or he would be driven from office, and the Democratic Party would be in ruins.

He did what was originally alleged. But he didn’t resign. He survived impeachment and trial—the Republicans could not even muster a clear majority on either of the two charges against him—and now elated Democrats are making plans to take back the House and perhaps the Senate.

You could say that this is Clinton’s legacy, his great achievement, proof positive that he is the political miracle worker that his friends and foes believe him to be. The historians will ask: Could anyone but Bill Clinton have survived this?

You could also say that this is a victory the president bought at an exceptionally steep price. The cost included lying for at least seven months, lowering the standards of political discourse, ensnaring his allies in the defense of behavior they repeatedly called reprehensible and squandering his obvious political gifts in defense of his own foolishness. He used his genius not to build his version of a New or Fair Deal or to march us into New Frontiers, but to hang on to office after a breathtakingly irresponsible affair.

His enemies will relive this matter, too, much as members of a team that blows a World Series on a ninth-inning error cannot avoid watching the game tapes over and over, wondering if they suffered from bad luck or spectacular incompetence.

At nearly every point, Clinton’s foes made the wrong choices. They assumed the country would be with them if only the facts were known. They assumed that endless airing of the scandal on television would provoke national weariness with a philandering president. They assumed if they just kept pushing to the next step—the Starr report recommending impeachment, a partisan House vote setting up impeachment procedures and then an even more partisan impeachment vote to force a Senate trial—victory would eventually be theirs.

For all these reasons, Friday’s acquittal in the Senate cannot possibly represent the end of this episode. There are too many fights still to be fought: for political predominance in the 2000 elections; for the ideological high ground; for honor and for revenge; for history’s verdict. Partisanship won’t fade. It may well become pronounced. Whether this is a blessing or a further curse depends on what form the partisanship takes.

There is another fight to be had as well: for the soul of American politics. While those in the political class—the politicians and the ideologues, the think tankers and the talk-show hosts, the consultants and, yes, we journalists—leaped into the muck of the Clinton conflict, much of the nation wondered how our politics came to be hijacked by an epic battle over one man’s momentary pleasures in the Oval Office and his efforts to hide them from public view.

Can any common lessons be learned when two embittered sides look at the same set of facts and reach such radically different conclusions about those facts, and about each other? Will anyone change his behavior after an event that only aggravated a politics of revenge that began with—pick your date—McCarthyism in the ’50s, or Richard Nixon in ’74, or Robert Bork in ’87, or Clarence Thomas in ’91, or Clinton from almost the moment he stepped into the White House?

The most obvious lesson, and the one most often offered in the past few months, is that partisanship is evil. That is the wrong lesson. Partisanship, properly conceived, is a force for good. It demands commitment—not just to individuals, not just to the pursuit of power, but to a set of ideas and principles. A contest between parties is, at its best, an opportunity to clarify the choices that citizens have to make.

But in the Clinton affair, partisanship was not about principle—all the talk about perjury and obstruction of justice notwithstanding—but about attitudes toward one man. Clinton’s enemies wanted him to go because they believed, in their souls, that he was fundamentally corrupt, a liar and a miserable opportunist.

I have heard several conservatives say over the past year that they saw the Lewinsky matter the way federal investigators of 60 years ago viewed gangster Al Capone’s tax evasion: not as the most important thing, but as the means by which a man who deserved to fall might be brought down.

That this was not just about Clinton’s alleged crimes, but about Clinton himself, was made clear in House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde’s closing remarks to the Senate. In what was a powerful speech for those who already agreed with him, Hyde cited Edward Gibbon’s description of the Roman emperor Septimus Severus: “Severus promised only to betray; he flattered only to ruin; and however he might bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation.”

Even if you accept Hyde’s analogy as appropriate, its very severity underscores how difficult it is to have reasonable and productive partisanship when one side has decided that the leader of its opposition is fundamentally and irretrievably corrupt.

The fierceness of the Republicans’ attack, in the face of unwavering evidence that the public did not want Clinton tossed from office, is seen by the president’s opponents as a sign of how principled Hyde and the House managers were. But to those who disagreed, it appeared as a triumph of party spirit over reasonable compromise. It reduced all party differences to an obsession with Clinton.

The battle over Clinton’s presidency also marked a continuation of what professors Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter called “Politics by Other Means” in a book they wrote nine years ago bearing that title. It is a politics dominated not by robust electoral battles in which the voters decide, but by court cases, Congressional investigations and media disclosures. Yes, it often involves partisanship, but of a less than democratic sort.

As David Grann argued in a powerful piece in the New Republic earlier this month, “the real problem with politics today is not that there is too much partisanship. It is that there is no genuine partisanship.”

He went on: “Whereas partisans once fought ruthlessly for the power to achieve the ideological goals that they truly believed in, the new nihilistic partisans are abandoning almost everything they believe in merely to obtain power for power’s sake.”

Yes, one can romanticize the past—the 1880s, for example, were characterized by a furious but often meaningless partisanship. Party loyalty has often been as much about jobs and influence as principle. But that Grann is broadly right is illustrated by how easily each party was willing to throw principles overboard if doing so served their interests in the Clinton battle.

As Grann pointed out, Republicans and Democrats were willing to say things about sexual harassment in this case that were, to be charitably, quite different from what each side said during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice. Each side has reversed its sentiments from Watergate times about executive power. Each was almost laughably unprincipled when Clinton ordered the bombing of Iraq in December: Democrats wrapped themselves in the flag, as Republicans used to do, while many Republicans challenged the president’s motives with a brio that brought to mind the passionate speeches of leftists such as Tom Hayden and Dave Dellinger during the Vietnam War.

To have real partisanship, one has to have real differences of principle. And here, at least, there may be some hope. For all the talk about Clinton’s proclivity to steal Republicans’ themes—it is one reason they can’t stand him—the two parties do have fundamental differences about the role of government, how much it should tax and spend and regulate the market, whether it is primarily a force for good or ill.

One reason for the fierce divisions in the battle over Clinton is that neither party is currently dominant. In the last two elections for the House, the popular vote split almost evenly between them. If both parties agree that the 2000 election is the time for the big showdown—and treat the next 21 months as prologue for the Big Argument—it could mean a return to true partisanship.

Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.) thinks Republicans in Congress should sit down with all their party’s potential presidential candidates and ask them: “How do we work together to set up an agenda that you can run on and we can run on in the fall?” McIntosh’s model is George Mitchell, who as Senate Majority Leader, “used every vote” before the 1992 elections to establish how his party differed with President George Bush.

Clinton and the Democrats already have the makings of a common agenda. If the result of this scandal is that the next two years become not a period of insincere bipartisanship but a time of honest partisan conflict, it might yet have some salutary effects.

A seemingly contradictory but related solution to the toxic state of politics is for the parties to stop pretending to disagree when they don’t. Many issues do not break down neatly along partisan lines. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) noted that there were bipartisan news conferences last week on three issues—missile defense, the marriage penalty in the tax code and education standards. “On many issues, member-to-member works better than party-to-party,” he says, drawing on his own experience in bipartisan efforts to reform laws on adoption. After the traumatic battles over the “Contract With America,” the government shutdown and impeachment, many members will be tempted to restore this form of normalcy.

And in a closely divided Congress, partisanship may be complicated by the need for each side’s leadership to create majorities with votes from the other side. Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) believes that Democrats could now profit because many moderate Republicans who supported impeachment need to re-burnish their centrist credentials. “Moderate Republicans are going to want to move to the center and vote with Democrats on the minimum wage, campaign finance reform and other issues,” he said.

If the need to restore a principled but reasonable partisanship is one lesson from this fight, another is to stop pretending that the country is in the midst of a culture war that features Clinton in the role of poster child for the 1960s.

For the few remaining cultural radicals inspired by the ’60s, the idea of Clinton as their hero is a joke. And the notion that the cultural radicals are storming the gates is simply wrong. On issue after issue—the costs of divorce, the problems confronting single-parent families, the desirability of teenagers’ postponing their first sexual experience, the dangers of pornography—all the evidence is that, in both attitudes and behavior, the country is moving in a less “permissive” direction.

Clinton himself, his own behavior notwithstanding, has signaled this shift in his rhetoric and in his policies. Those who view Clinton primarily as an opportunist should see more clearly than anyone that he is responding to a real change in the country.

There is one more thing: Because of this fight, each party’s capacity to speak in moral terms has been diminished. While believing he and his colleagues did the right thing in voting to impeach the president, McIntosh says: “We lost ground in being able to talk about moral issues.”

In defending Clinton, Democrats also gave up some of the moral high ground that had been theirs on issues such as sexual harassment and executive power. “There’s an unclean feeling that people would admit to off the record,” said a Democratic consultant, speaking, of course, off the record.

An unclean feeling is what many citizens who had nothing to do with this fight are experiencing now that it’s over. It will only get worse if the president’s enemies keep tossing new allegations at him—and there is absolutely no reason to believe they will stop. It will worsen for sure if Clinton does anything between now and the end of his term to provide his enemies with yet more ammunition. And no, he really, really can’t afford to gloat, no matter how elated he is by his escape. Judging by his sober and tempered response after Friday’s vote, he seems to understand this—for the time being.

It is said that many politicians will now be asked about adultery and all manner of personal sins. Don’t believe it. What they should be asked is how they will make the inevitable conflicts of partisan politics productive; how they will turn away from culture wars and moral one-upmanship; and how they will avoid embarrassing themselves, their families, their party, and all the rest of us. Let’s not do this again, ever.