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.
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.
Kenneth Starr never set out to win a putative culture war; it was Clinton's defenders who feared that by letting their man be impeached, they would lose a culture war. "The president must not lose his job," wrote Maureen Dowd, the New York Times's bellwether columnist, in her remarkable September 1998 pivot in favor of the president. "Not over this." Not because a "middle-aged married man has [an] affair with [a] frisky and adoring young office girl." A failure to defend the president, she feared, would jeopardize everything won in the 1960s. Apparently, requiring presidents to tell the truth under oath is the first step on a slippery slope to the prosecution of fornication and the outlawing of abortion.
Poor Richard Nixon. If only he'd thought to say that he wanted to wiretap Larry O'Brien's telephone at the Democratic National Committee because he had reason to believe O'Brien was using it to receive pro-life marching orders from the Vatican. Then Nixon, too, might have gotten a pass from the Times op-ed page!
Dowd had it really exactly backwards. One of the things that the Lewinsky affair illuminates is how very difficult it is to sustain any idea of public virtue in a society unable to agree on what constitutes private virtue. Clinton committed a public wrong. But he got away with it in very large part because it was connected to a private wrong, at a moment when Americans seem to find it uniquely difficult to express judgments about private wrongdoing. It was not conservatives who used perjury as a way to punish adultery; it was the Clintonites who saw they could use adultery to excuse perjury.
A cunning trick, but one likely to leave behind a certain odor. Nevertheless, for the moment it has been effective. Fearful Republican senators are now looking for some "exit strategy" that ends the trial rapidly. There is only one exit strategy that will work: Call the final vote and be prepared to lose. Impeachment was unpopular primarily because voters interpreted it as a cynical partisan gambit. For once, this suspicion was entirely misplaced, and it would be an act of self-betrayal for Republicans now to do anything to justify it. Cutting short the trial of a felonious president because the polls oppose it may seem like smart politics. But ending the trial hastily for political reasons only lends credence to the charge that Republicans started the trial for political reasons.
And once over, Republicans must not disown the trial. When they permitted Jennifer Dunn and Steve Largent to appear on national television after the president's State of the Union address and chirrup that the trial involves no big issues that justify disrupting the cozy comity of the capital, they raised the question: Well then, if the trial was so bogus, why did the Republicans start it? If Clinton feels no need to apologize for breaking the law, why do the Republicans feel the need to apologize for enforcing it?
President Clinton deserves to be convicted and removed from office. His popularity has saved him. Very well: Let his party go on record, in the Senate as in the House (and on Lincoln's birthday too!), that lying under oath and corrupting justice just do not seem to them to be impeachable offenses. Let them identify themselves as Clinton's apologists and defenders. And let Republicans retain enough of their old and deserved confidence in the American people -- who are seldom deceived for very long -- to believe that there will be a reckoning. Those same polls that show Clinton's popularity as president also show how little Americans like or trust him personally. A man who might have gone down in history as the Democrats' Eisenhower -- a likable, cautious character who presided over an era of wonderful peace and prosperity -- has instead been exposed as their Nixon.
Was it worthwhile to impeach Clinton? The impeachment proved to the American people that the charges against Clinton were in every particular true. It blackened the name of a law-breaking president. It destroyed the Democrats' quarter-century moral upper-hand and exposed the party's cynicism in pursuit of power. It gave American liberals one more opportunity to display their disdain for the law when it threatens to curb their appetites. It has ended in at least momentary defeat. Oh well. For a good cause, even defeat is worthwhile. But it's funny about good causes: Somehow, the defeats rarely last for long.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.