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Let's Not Move On

11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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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?"

ONE THING WE HAVE LEARNED is that Clinton will trample anything -- a solemn oath, a clear law, his constitutional duty, anything -- in pursuit of his own advantage. A second thing we have learned is that the Democrats in Congress, down to the very last representative and senator, will participate in Clinton's obstructions, rather than let Clinton be called to account. And a third thing we have learned is that, in Clinton's view, he vindicates himself by discrediting his accusers.

All this being so, we can be sure that the acquittal vote will not put the Clinton scandals behind us. Either Clinton really did disgrace his office to an extent that merited impeachment, or the Republicans behaved with heedless partisan zeal in trying to impeach him. It may be years before public opinion finally comes firmly to rest on one conclusion or the other. But opinion won't remain indefinitely suspended. Americans may now say they are sick of the scandal coverage and the impeachment debate, but they won't soon forget something as momentous as a presidential impeachment. And where public opinion does finally come down will affect how the public views the office of the presidency, the standards of public life -- and the Republican party -- for the next generation.

One immediate awkwardness is that Democrats will soon be demanding that the independent counsel statute be allowed to lapse. The White House will certainly portray this as a judgment on Ken Starr's "excesses." But there is not much sense in defending the institution now, since it did, in its own way, contribute to the public's rejection of the impeachment effort.

Most of us who favored Clinton's removal came to see the specific charges arising out of the Lewinsky scandal as a "synecdoche" (as William Safire put it), a mere illustration of a wider pattern of lawlessness which was the real grounds for removal. But why did impeachment charges come to focus on the very narrow question of whether Clinton's testimony before the grand jury was technically perjurious or his cover-up efforts amounted in a technical sense to "obstruction"? More serious scandals -- the wheedling of campaign contributions from Communist officials in China, the accumulation of FBI files in the White House, the perpetration of blackmail and spying operations on opponents -- were left unresolved or entirely unexplored by congressional committees, which were content to let the independent counsel take the heat for scandal-mongering. It was, incredibly, left to the independent counsel -- essentially a bureaucrat -- to decide how to frame the basic issues in the impeachment.

I believe that Starr decided to focus all his efforts on the Lewinsky case because that was where he thought he could catch the president personally. But the issue should not have been reduced to the technical terms of a criminal indictment. When the House Judiciary Committee drafted impeachment charges against President Nixon in 1974, it did not focus exclusively on crimes but listed a whole series of abuses, concerning the IRS, the FBI, and other agencies. Nixon's accusers could not prove that he had personal knowledge of these abuses, but they did not think they had to prove it. Instead, the articles asserted that the president "knew or had reason to know" that his subordinates engaged in abusive acts, that Nixon "did direct, authorize or permit" various abuses, and so on.

As it was, of course, the focus on the Lewinsky case allowed Clinton's defenders to portray Starr and the House Republicans as Puritans obsessed with sexual peccadilloes. In other words, the impeachment effort marched straight into the Left's stronghold -- that fortress of opinion built up in defense of sexual freedom.

We cannot be sure that changing the focus to other scandals would have roused a public already sick of scandal and recrimination. But it is unfortunate that Republicans, not having launched the Lewinsky charges from their own committees, were skittish about pressing home the charges, almost until the House voted impeachment last December, and then resumed an ambivalent posture during the trial.