The Magazine


In Defense of the House Republicans

Feb 8, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 20 • By DAVID FRUM
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To be sure, putting it that way makes impeachment sound like the futile gesture of the hero of an existential novel: "The site of the rendezvous had been betrayed to the Gestapo, but Rene put on his trench-coat, lit his cigarette, and went out into the rainy night . . . " In fact, while the Republicans did not undertake impeachment for party advantage -- quite the contrary -- it is mistaken to imagine they embarked on a suicide mission. Yes, the Republican determination to enforce the law against a popular president is perilous. But the Democrats' determination to let that president get away with breaking the law is at least as perilous, as they themselves seem to realize.

The peril is summed up in those polls by which Clinton lives: The mid-January Gallup poll found that 79 percent of Americans believe that Clinton perjured himself, and that 53 percent believe he obstructed justice. Pollster John Zogby asked some more specific questions from January 19-21 and learned that 63 percent agree that Clinton perjured himself before a federal grand jury. Henry Hyde and his House managers, in other words, have completely won the argument over the facts of this case. They have convinced the country that President Clinton has committed crimes -- and serious crimes: 55 percent of Americans agree, Zogby reports, that grand jury perjury is an impeachable offense and 58 percent agree that obstruction of justice is impeachable. But the public has remained unwilling to connect the dots, and has resisted removing the president from office.

But will the dots stay unconnected? That depends on which half of the public's split consciousness endures longer: the belief that Clinton is doing a fine job as president and should therefore stay in office? Or the knowledge that Clinton has committed crimes that merit impeachment? One of the Zogby polls' findings, and it echoes that of other pollsters, is that only 40 percent of Americans say they are "proud" that Bill Clinton is president; 42 percent say they are "ashamed." Isn't that odd? Three-quarters of Americans approve of the job Clinton is doing, but a plurality are ashamed of the man's presidency. If America were a patient on the couch, a psychiatrist would be quick to diagnose some very powerful feelings of ambivalence here -- even a guilt complex. The Democrats sense that guilt, which is why they are anxious to craft a deal that will keep Clinton in office without seeming to condone his law-breaking.

The presence in office of a scofflaw president is a bone in the throat of American democracy. It won't go away, try as the senators might to ignore it. Years from now, in completely unpredictable ways, the country will still be gagging on it. Great misdeeds are like that -- they linger, like the beating of Edgar Allan Poe's telltale heart. It was the Democrats' Cold War weakness that prevented Clinton from following through on his gays-in-the-military promise: He lacked the moral authority to bring the generals to heel. Similarly, but in entirely unpredictable ways, the Democrats' support for a president who defied the laws will haunt them and the country for years. It has, at least for the moment, deprived them of their usual trustworthy base in the media. The Monica Lewinsky story is the first Democratic scandal since the Alger Hiss trial to be covered by the press with anything like the zeal and outrage it brings to Republican scandals. The early Clinton administration enjoyed the same presumptive immunity that Kennedy and Johnson were able to count on. When caught with FBI files on their desks, Clintonites could smile and say innocently, "We may be sloppy but we're not crooked," and anticipate -- correctly -- that they would receive the benefit of the doubt. Not any more.

It may be over-optimistic to hope that the press will subject future Democratic administrations to the same skeptical scrutiny that Republicans expect as a matter of course. But the public will. In the long series of polls that show the Clinton-led Democrats have overtaken the Republicans as the party most trusted on Social Security, education, and other issues, and have pulled even with them on crime and taxes, the Republicans for the first time in memory have taken a big and widening lead in one crucial domain: morality and ethics.

All too many people in Washington these days hear the phrase "morals and ethics" and think sex. But it's not the president's accusers who are obsessed with sex: It's the president's defenders. They feared that allowing Clinton to be punished for perjury would undermine the dogma that sex, so long as it's consensual, ought never to be subject to moral or legal scrutiny.