The Magazine


Sep 7, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 49 • By TOD LINDBERG
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As WASHINGTON GEARS UP for the arrival in the House of Representatives of Kenneth Starr's report on President Clinton's impeachable offenses, a particularly virulent strain of wannabe conventional wisdom has been making the rounds. It is that Republicans would prefer (if they put party ahead of country) to keep a weakened Clinton in office for two more years -- because an incumbent President Gore running in the 2000 presidential race gives them the heebie-jeebies.

The proponents of this view are many. Most prominently, former vice president Dan Quayle said in Iowa last week that "in strictly partisan political terms, it would be better to keep [Clinton] in office." Many other Republicans, while they stroke their chins with high seriousness as they talk of resignation and impeachment before the cameras, take the view off-camera that they would be fools to remove the Clinton albatross from the neck of the Democratic party.

If you are a risk-averse Republican member of Congress with little appetite for trying to take down a president whose job-approval rating is still over 60 percent, the idea that you are being a political tough guy rather than a wimp is no doubt quite appealing. Too bad it's wrong. For their own good, Republicans who are seriously flirting with this view ought to take a closer look at the implications of the Dare to Do Nothing scenario. It would be bad for the country -- and bad for the party.

If Kenneth Starr produces a nothingburger of a report against Clinton, discreet on sex and minimalist on obstruction, then, obviously, the House isn't likely to do much of anything. But what should the GOP do, assuming a report that's a cross between the Penthouse letters section and F'accuse? House Republicans must, on principle, act. Not to do so would make it difficult if not impossible for the party to speak on matters of public morality, honesty, and integrity.

There is, moreover, a problem in principle with willfully leaving an emasculated, powerless president in office. The nation depends on a strong and unified executive. Our enemies, who are still out there, will interpret a powerless president as a powerless United States -- a dangerous judgment even if we remain strong, and all the more so if it happens to be correct. If the world's sole remaining superpower collapses on itself, the international vacuum created thereby will suck all manner of unsavory creatures out of the woodwork. We worked hard for our Pax Americana. We ought not to be cavalier about what is required to sustain it.

There is, too, the potential danger of a fragmented executive. As the power at the White House weakens, the power of the cabinet departments and independent agencies is apt to increase. A discredited, despised president may find it difficult to keep control. Suppose the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously opposed a military action the president thought necessary -- and leaked their opposition to the press. Could Clinton go ahead with it? Right now, he would probably have a harder time than George Bush did overcoming Colin Powell's reluctance to fight the Gulf War. This ought to give sober men pause.

Now let us give pause to those intoxicated by political power. The scenario under discussion is one in which the president is so badly damaged that Republicans face an apparently costless choice: squash Clinton like a bug or spare him. On one hand, two years of a bruised and battered Clinton; on the other, a Hawaiitanned, rested Al Gore. On one hand, a race in 2000 against a party fractured and dispirited by a White House adrift; on the other, a race against an incumbent who will have had two years or so to consolidate his position in the party and demonstrate his presidential qualities to the American people.

If that seems like an easy political choice, it's only because the premises underlying it are dubious. Consider first the assumption that Clinton stays flat on his back for two years. If the president survives politically, he will have survived a process with a beginning (the Starr investigation and report), a middle (the congressional inquiry), and, more to the point, an end -- a decision by the House not to go forward, perhaps a vote of censure. Clinton's focus now is surely on how to get to that day, because that is the day he puts this matter to rest, gets this behind us, gets on with the business of the American people, etc.