DARE TO DO NOTHING?
Sep 7, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 49 • By TOD LINDBERG
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.
For his political opponents, the Monica scandal then becomes one more entry in their catalogue of Clinton horribleness, along with the draft dodging, Hillary's cattle futures, Vince Foster's papers, Filegate, the Rose Law Firm billing records, etc. But that's all. It will no longer have political salience, a capacity to wound afresh. The political culture will have assimilated all there is to know about the affair, much as the stock market is presumed to efficiently assimilate all there is to know about a company. The political culture will reach an assessment of Clinton's remaining strengths and weaknesses, much as the market determines a share price. And most important for the president and his friends, trading in Clinton shares will continue the next day.
And who knows what the price of Clinton will be a year from now? The political market is more volatile than Wall Street. Anyone who continues to beat him over the head with Monica will be seen as carping obsessively. Clinton will have an opportunity to rebuild his reputation. It won't be easy; the final two years of a second term never are. But even diminished, the power of the White House is awesome. He does not lack political skills. And the sheer fact of his survival will feed the legend of the Comeback Kid. Clinton will be in a position to jeer at Republicans in the style of the pop band Chumbawamba: "I get knocked down/But I get up again/You're never going to keep me down."
We are not short of examples of how long a year can be in politics, much less two. Consider Newt Gingrich. A year ago, following a failed coup attempt against him within the House Republican leadership, the speculation was whether he would last in the speaker's office until January or have to go by fall. Now his position in the House is as strong as it has been since the failure of the government-shutdown strategy in 1995-96. He may be Mr. Least Unacceptable; but that is not nothing. He has surely been badly damaged politically by his own ethics problem; but he is still alive, and his poll numbers are rising.
The next problem with the Dare to Do Nothing scenario is its faulty view of the process about to unfold. The mistaken assumption here is that there will come a moment when Republicans, with the cool precision of surgeons, will be able to flick or not flick the scalpel whose blade can sever Bill Clinton from the body politic. There is, in truth, little likelihood of such a moment.
Republicans control the House, but they do not control this process, at least not in the sense that they and they alone can shape it. Democrats matter. And Democrats are subject to political pressure as well. Even if the instinct among Democrats on Capitol Hill were to stand united behind the president and to offer their daughters as White House interns in a show of solidarity (and that is not their instinct), they would still have to explain themselves to their constituents and contend with political opponents out to unseat them.
If this process actually arrives at a life-or-death moment for President Clinton, it is apt to arise only with substantial Democratic support. If the House's sentiment on impeachment were so uncertain that it might not command majority support, it would be foolish in the extreme to bring it to the floor for a vote. And if the sentiment were bipartisan and substantial, it would be difficult not to go ahead with it. While it may overstate the case to say that the process has a life of its own, it is not so easily manipulated against its own momentum.
Finally, there's the Gore factor in the Dare to Do Nothing scenario: Gore the incumbent, Gore the healer, Gore the Invincible. Run away, run away.
Not so fast. This is the biggest mistaken assumption of them all. Note that Al Gore has been hiding lately. That's because he is in a brutal position. Politics doesn't get any tougher than this. Will Bill Clinton survive? If he does, does that mean you should support him? What does supporting Clinton do to your own aspirations for 2000? Is there a way of being supportive without appearing supportive? Or is it better to appear supportive without actually being supportive? Is loyalty a virtue or an impediment? How do you please hard-core Starr-hating Democrats without alienating the middle? Is House minority leader Dick Gephardt an ally in saving Clinton or a rival in the post-Clinton era? How do you know whether you should trust him? When you say "put this matter behind us," do you mean with Bill in the big chair in the Oval or with Al in the big chair in the Oval? How wobbly should Bill be before you kick him over? Would somebody else kick him over for you? Aaaargh.
All of these questions need to be addressed in real time as this story continues to unfold. And the decisions Gore makes will have consequences. I find it difficult to believe that even the greatest politician, which Gore is not, could play this out without error. More likely, at the end of the road, rather than invincible, Gore will be wobbly himself.
Moreover, if Gore does end up running the show, the cleanup work will be immense. For six years now, the Democratic party has been organized around Bill Clinton, who was supposed to carry on through 2000 and then transfer party control to his heir apparent, Gore. Even absent scandal, this isn't an easy political transition. Recall the bloodshed and hard feelings when the Bush people took over from the Reagan people in 1988-89. If Gore moves into the White House before January 2001, there will be a huge amount of wreckage to clean up: Hard feelings are nothing next to the anger, betrayal, and recriminations at the end of this process. The party will be in tatters. And, oh no, whom should the new president pardon?
Another example from the career of Newt Gingrich: At least since 1993, the House Republican conference has been organized around the leadership of Gingrich. Does anybody seriously imagine that Democrats would have done something, had there been something to be done, to save Newt Gingrich in January 1997 if it had looked like the Republicans were about to eject him from the speaker's office? Would partisan Democrats in the House have reasoned that they would be better off with a weakened Speaker Gingrich than with a potentially strong successor? If so, they would have miscalculated badly. This was a speaker who, after being badly weakened, still reached a tax-cutting balanced-budget agreement with the White House -- not exactly a liberal Democratic priority.
No, House Democrats were quite sincere in their expressed desire to see Gingrich thrown off the cliff. They understood perfectly well that this would plunge House Republicans into chaos, and that chaos would constitute genuine political opportunity for Democrats.
Gerald Ford did not have an easy time of it when Nixon left office. His party got pounded at the polls. Congress made a successful grab for executive power. Saigon fell. The economy was a mess ("Whip Inflation Now!"). He faced a robust primary challenge. He lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter.
That strikes me as a more likely political model for the aftermath of Bill Clinton's collapse than the model the Dare to Do Nothing crowd is relying on. When Republicans say the president should step down, they should mean it. It's a matter of principle, sure. But since when can you have only one good reason for saying something?
Tod Lindberg is editorial-page editor of the Washington Times.