The Party of Constitutionalism
11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By JAMES W. CEASER
THE JURY IS STILL OUT on last week's verdict, and the battle over the meaning of the impeachment and acquittal of William Jefferson Clinton has just begun.
No sane person could possibly wish to listen to even one more word about these events, least of all to any of the therapeutic expressions being heard this week about our need for "healing" or "closure." But however much some people would like to "move on," the issues will not go away. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Either the Clinton impeachment will be seen as justified and his conviction warranted, or the acquittal will be deemed right and his impeachment a partisan witch-hunt.
In January, the public sentiment encouraged by the president's party very nearly won the day. With opinion swelling against even hearing the House's case for conviction, a plan was hatched and almost executed to abort the Senate trial. Once the trial opened, opinion moved slightly in the direction of the House managers, only to shift back again to the president. But wherever opinion stands this week, it is not fully settled yet. Defending the legitimacy of the House impeachment vote must therefore remain a cardinal objective for Republicans. To permit the impeachment to be discredited would not only jeopardize the political prospects of the whole party. Worse, it would undermine the House managers' defense of the two great pillars that support the republic: our political Constitution and our moral constitution, meaning the unwritten standards of right and wrong that are carried in the hearts and minds of the American people. The struggle over the meaning of the Clinton trial remains so important because it affects the fate of both of these constitutions.
The central issue in the debate on the Constitution was the proper grounds for impeachment. According to the Clinton doctrine, a president, no matter what crimes he may have committed or what offenses he may have caused, should retain his office as long as these do not, in Charles Ruff's words, "put at risk the liberties of the people." For the Republican managers, the commission of a serious crime by the president and his failure to ensure the faithful execution of the laws constitute reasonable grounds for impeachment. The choice offered here, it seems, is nothing less than that between a vulgar new Caesarism and the rule of law.
Nevertheless, despite the short-term victory of the lawless Clinton doctrine, the Constitution has actually been strengthened by the impeachment process as a whole. All the schemes and plots to deny or avoid the Constitution's authority -- from censure, to aborting the trial, to dismissal, to hearing no witnesses -- were foiled. The Constitution emerged as the only higher ground to which the parties could successfully appeal. Even the president, who served throughout as commander in chief of the expediency school, cynically embraced the Constitution when seeking at the last moment to avert a Senate procedure of "findings of fact." There was also a remarkable adherence on both sides to the idea of constitutional originalism in the efforts to define the basis for impeachment. Not since 1789 have the American people heard so much from the Founders; it was rumored that Hamilton and Madison were booked to appear on Geraldo.
At last, Republicans, whose political fortunes have suffered greatly over the past six months, may have stumbled on a silver lining. Having tied themselves to the mast of the Constitution, they have discovered that they are far less a party of populism, and far more a party of constitutionalism, than they thought only a short time ago. And they now at least have a clear standard by which to defend their actions. So while Republicans may wish to collect the censure resolutions that Democrats have been circulating and publish them in a fine volume with gold-edged pages, they should resist the siren song of censure itself.
Our moral constitution clearly remains the more important concern. Republicans have learned that it is not as strong as they believed -- that it cannot be counted on to automatically carry the day against a fervent partisanship and an unscrupulous president. But even this disappointment pales beside the risk that clear and public standards of right and wrong may be lost to the next generation. This possibility of corruption, which Henry Hyde identified in his closing speech to the Senate as the basic issue of the whole trial, represents the greatest threat posed by the Clinton doctrine. And because the stakes are so high, there can be no time for despair. The moral constitution is now on trial. Its impeachment is not an option.
James W. Ceaser is professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.