In light of the conclusion of the Senate trial of the president, the editors of THE WEEKLY STANDARD asked 22 writers, thinkers, and political actors the following questions: “President William Jefferson Clinton has been impeached and acquitted. What have we learned? What should we do now?”
LET’S START WITH THE OBVIOUS: There may be grave political consequences for the Republican majorities that moved the impeachment process forward. And the judgment of history — which, as everyone knows, tends to favor the winners — may be that Bill Clinton did not deserve removal from office for his sins in this case. But, comrades, this was worth a fight. If at any point short of the final vote in the Senate the process had been abandoned — something that could only have happened with substantial Republican acquiescence — then the inevitable conclusion would have been drawn that such conduct as lying under oath and colluding to cover up your lies, despite a court’s order to tell the truth, is not malfeasance as such, but can only be found to be so based on the context of the colluding and covering up.
That’s an offensive notion. Of course all cases are different. But in our country, we start with the law and then we move on to the particulars, not the other way around. Nor, by the way, does our system ensure that the final outcome is just and right. What we share is an agreement — known generically as the consent of the governed — that our constitutional process and our legal process are the means by which we pursue justice. These arrangements — known generically as the rule of law — find vindication simply in adherence to them. It’s one thing to note that the Senate would not remove Bill Clinton; that outcome is contemplated by the two-thirds requirement for removal, according to which any one-third of the Senate, for any reason, can ensure that a president stays in office until the end of his term. It would have been another thing altogether to abandon the case, for whatever reason or pretext, given the facts about Clinton’s conduct that are clear to honest Democrats and Republicans alike.
It’s perfectly understandable that Republicans and conservatives aren’t now in much of a mood to declare victory, for principle, along the lines above. In fact, the sourness of the general mood isn’t hard to explain at all. You just tried to take down the president, and it didn’t work out for you. How should you feel? What more by way of explanation does one require?
For those who need cheering up, let me suggest, perhaps optimistically, that at least things can’t get any worse. Bill Clinton now has higher job approval ratings than Reagan or Eisenhower did at the same point in their second terms. In addition, the Republican casualty list includes many of Clinton’s least favorite people. Gingrich, D’Amato, Faircloth, Livingston: all dead. The shipwreck is awesome. Gordon Lightfoot should write a ballad.
Anyway, wasn’t there a point at which Republicans, for example Dan Quayle, were musing about how it would be better for the GOP to keep a weakened Bill Clinton in office than to face an incumbent Al Gore in 2000? (Although I must say, I wrote an article in this magazine in the fall arguing that that notion was foolish, on the grounds that there was no reason to assume that Clinton, should he survive the process, would be permanently weakened.)
As to where we go from here, begin with two truisms: Politics is ebb and flow; and in politics, you begin where you are. That means that even though things are grim, and there’s no point in wishing they weren’t, they don’t have to stay grim forever.
What to do? Well, professional Republicans need to get busy repairing the party’s fortunes; and conservatives need to begin a new to make the case for conservative ideas. There’s some overlap between the two groups, of course. But it strikes me as ill-advised for either to try to achieve an identity between the two. Conservative ideas shouldn’t become hostage to the fortunes and political requirements of GOP partisanship. Nor (in the less likely event) should the GOP rest its electoral prospects solely on the party’s adherence to conservatism. There are philosophers and there are kings, and it’s usually a mistake for one to try to be the other.