The Clinton Kulturkampf
11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
REPUBLICANS STARTED the impeachment process thinking they were trying a reasonably straightforward case of perjury and obstruction of justice. They got more than they bargained for. Much more. They started a Kulturkampf.
The trial of President Clinton turned into a major political-cultural event. It lacked, of course, the grandeur of the Hiss case or the raw gravity of the O. J. trial. Sex and lies pale in comparison with treason and murder. But like the Hiss and O. J. trials, it will have the effect of dividing the country ideologically. The Clinton trial is entering cultural mythology as the modern equivalent of the Scopes trial: the forces of tolerance, worldly wisdom, and modernity vs. an inquisition of vengeful prurience and moralism. Clinton's acquittal will be made to stand for the triumph of the forces of, if not light, then reason.
So have the elite media portrayed the trial -- six months, mind you, after 150 newspapers called for the scoundrel's resignation for lying to and mocking the country for seven months -- and it seems to have stuck. The most reviled man in America is Kenneth Starr, followed closely by the House managers. The president, on the other hand, is viewed with ambivalence by an electorate that by now sees him, mirabile dictu, as a victim.
For part of this, Republicans have only their own ham-handedness to blame. They made about as many tactical errors as Saddam did in the run-up to the Gulf War, and they have been similarly rewarded. Last August, Clinton had none but the most rabid, Carvilled partisans in his camp. His last line of defense was to change the subject to alleged Republican unfairness and partisanship. House Republicans proceeded to play the part perfectly, first, by releasing the president's grand jury testimony and, then, by defeating Democratic procedural proposals.
Both were entirely unnecessary. They allowed the issue to shift from perjury to partisanship. In the end, of course, House Republicans adhered to the very Democratic parameters they had overridden -- finishing impeachment hearings by Christmas and not expanding their inquiry beyond Lewinsky. But the damage was done.
Some Republicans are consoling themselves with the thought that this will quickly pass. They are wrong. Political fights pass; culture wars endure.
This one, in particular, will be kept alive by the liberal elite because it so conveniently casts all of liberalism's disparate enemies into the same tainted camp: Christian Coalition, witch-hunting moralists, partisan Congress, anti-sexual-liberationists -- why, the whole vast right-wing conspiracy is lined up on one side. And according to every poll, the losing side, by a lopsided majority.
The culture war will be kept alive, too, by the Clintonites seeking to remove the stain of impeachment from the Clinton presidency by casting it as the illegitimate act of a vengeful House. Winning that fight is not just vindication for Clinton. It has become the heart of Clinton's search for a "legacy," an enterprise whose goal is now framed negatively: not to be remembered as the second president ever impeached.
Clintonites in search of a legacy and liberals in search of ideological victory have found common cause. They will also have found a champion: Hillary.
Bill's political career is over. He will officially retire in 2001, but he is already history. He has never had much personal credibility. Today no one believes a word he says. His job approval is high but respect for him is non-existent.
Enter Hillary. In the ultimate irony, she will become the carrier of the Clintonite torch, the rallying point both for those who want to vindicate Clinton's legacy and those who want to continue to marginalize conservatives as enemies of tolerance.
She will undoubtedly achieve elective office, probably in the Senate. Wed politically to Bill forever, she will become the chief spokesman of what might be called the moral majority of the left, even as she tries to cast her husband's impeachment as the desperate act of those who could not get her husband otherwise.
The trial is over, but the war continues. And the other side will now have a more ideologically committed, more disciplined, and, in the eyes of the public, more sympathetic champion than Bill Clinton ever was.
Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.