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Democrats Held Hostage

11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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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?"

WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED from the acquittal of Bill Clinton is that the American people are more "disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed" -- or by kicking out a president when the economy is strong. But we had reason to know that already.

We have also learned something surprising: A majority of Americans have bought the line that sexual behavior between (among?) consenting adults is beyond criticism. People don't seem to think that adultery is fine, but they do seem to think that no one may be criticized for engaging in it. As a large minority disagrees with this judgment, we can expect sexual morality to remain a matter of public debate and conflict in the coming years.

What are the political effects? The first relates to the president. Bill Clinton, already a lame duck, is unlikely to see his reputation improve after he leaves office, as Jimmy Carter did. Democrats will probably begin distancing themselves from the president and his behavior very soon and continue to do so after the next election. This process will accelerate if new revelations of misconduct arise, as they may. The Democrats are now hostage to Clinton's report card.

The second political effect relates to our public life, and here the news is bad. The expectation that citizens will be honest in the courts has been permanently damaged. The value of an oath has been undermined. The notion that public service requires men and women of good character now seems quaint.

The third political effect relates to the Republican party. The Democrats are now linked in the public mind with the president's behavior. The GOP, once the defender of public morals against the sixties generation, is, well, once again the defender of public morals against the sixties generation, or at least those members of it now running the executive branch and the media. If the Republicans perform this role too zealously, they will be seen as scolds and hypocrites; if they shirk it, they will have ratified the Clinton standards. An appeal to voters to help restore the dignity and even glory of the presidency will fare well. There is a real opportunity here for Republicans. Many Americans share the view that something of value has been lost in our common life and that the Democrats lost it. These citizens are chary of leaders who proclaim their own virtue but eager for leaders who are virtuous.

This week the Democratic party and its president may seem to be winners. It won't last.

Elliott Abrams is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.