The Magazine


In Defense of the House Republicans

Feb 8, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 20 • By DAVID FRUM
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Was it worth it? Was it worth losing five Republican congressmen in 1998 and risking more in 2000, consuming a year of the nation's time, dragging dozens of unwilling figures into the glare of publicity, and depressing the party's poll numbers, all in an attempt to punish the president for telling a few lies about his office hanky-panky?

That question, or some version of it, will take over the airwaves of the nation the moment President Clinton is acquitted by the Senate, as now seems both inevitable and imminent. Conservatives may complain that the question is tendentious -- did anybody debate whether punishing Nixon for Watergate was worth delivering 17 million South Vietnamese to communism? -- but that won't make it go away. Even within the Republican party -- for all the remarkable solidarity on display now -- acrimony may well erupt once the trial ends. And after all, the critics of the impeachment drive have something of a point. Pro-impeachment Republicans did choose to ignore the polls and did knowingly defy extreme political danger. They do owe their party and the country an accounting of what good they expected to achieve. Here's what such an accounting might sound like.

It would begin with a negative point: When people suggest that the scandal should somehow have been wrapped up earlier, when precisely do they have in mind? From the very first moment the story exploded last January, it was glaringly apparent that President Clinton had perjured himself and coordinated the perjury of others in the Paula Jones litigation. Nobody except the most extreme Clinton partisan could be -- or in fact was -- indifferent to that appalling fact. And even had Republicans somehow managed to feign indifference, the investigation of the scandal would have proceeded anyway, because nobody except Kenneth Starr had the power to halt it. And the only way he could halt it was by violating the terms of the Independent Counsel law and his own appointment.

Indeed, though everyone now contrives to forget the fact, congressional Republicans did remain astonishingly reticent about Starr's investigation for most of 1998. It was not until September -- the delivery of the independent counsel's report -- that the scandal unavoidably became Congress's responsibility. What should Congress have done then? Said, "Thank you very much Mr. Independent Counsel for your evidence, but we've looked at the polls and have decided that popular presidents can break the law if they want to?"

When an independent counsel -- for the first time in the twenty year history of the statute -- refers evidence to Congress that impeachable offenses have been committed by the president, Congress cannot just wish its responsibility away. It must in turn refer the evidence to the only body with the power to act: the House Judiciary Committee. As it happened, virtually every member of the House of Representatives stood ready to do just that last fall.

Possibly, the Judiciary Committee could have devised some other penalty for the president's perjury and obstruction than impeachment. But what? The censure deal that the doughty editorialists of the New York Times kept touting was never more than a desperate expedient. Leave aside the question of censure's constitutionality. Ask only this: Would those House Democrats who took the bus over to the White House lawn to applaud the president on the day of his impeachment ever have voted for anything that explicitly named the president a criminal? Of course not. So a censure resolution would either have been hopelessly vague or, like impeachment, would have passed the House on a party-line vote.

In either case, is there any doubt that President Clinton, who to this day insists that he is the victim of the most unjust prosecution since O. J. Simpson, would have brushed it off? Censure might have been an option had the president ever been willing to confess his perjury and witness-tampering and declare his willingness to submit to the judgment of the courts after his term was over. But so long as he scorned the law and denied the facts, censure only constituted an admission that Congress was afraid to punish a felonious president. Better, frankly, for Congress to pretend to believe in the president's innocence than to declare his guilt while behaving in ways that make it clear that so long as a chief executive rides high in the polls he may commit what crimes he pleases. That really is the way republics die.

So Henry Hyde and his Republican colleagues had no conscientious alternative. President Clinton's unapologetic defense of his crimes left them with no choice but to impeach or acquiesce. As the republic's only line of defense against a lawless president, they were duty-bound to impeach and accept the consequences.