In the early afternoon of December 19, 1998, the lame-duck, dwindling majority of Republican members of the House of Representatives defied overwhelming public opinion and impeached President Clinton on two counts of high crimes and misdemeanors deriving from his denials of his sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky. The rapid-fire votes climaxed six years of efforts by the press, gossips, politicians, and prosecutors to pin some crime or other on Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The couple had been informally accused over the years of an ever-shifting variety of offenses relating to the Whitewater land deal, the dismissal of staff in the White House travel office, the White House’s possession of FBI files on Republicans, and the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster. On the Internet and on talk radio there were conspiracy theories involving drug smuggling and a supposed list of mysterious deaths of people who had been connected in some way to the Clintons. In The New York Times, William Safire suggested that Mrs. Clinton was liable to five years’ imprisonment for allegedly making false statements to an investigator for the General Accounting Office. In the end, the surviving articles of impeachment came down to whether or not Clinton, under oath before a federal grand jury, had accurately described his furtive sexual contacts with Miss Lewinsky and whether he had concealed evidence related to the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.
The gravity of the moment, the first impeachment of an elected president in the nation’s history, was undermined both by the triviality and sordidness of the underlying charges and by the partisanship of the vote. A succession of legal scholars and historians had warned the House Judiciary Committee that Clinton’s offenses did not rise to the constitutional standard of “treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Their concerns were dismissed; but suspecting that their argument might take hold in the Senate, Clinton’s pursuers immediately began to suggest that he was really guilty of other, undescribed but more serious, offenses—also related to his sex life—that would be proven by secret evidence in the possession of the House. Republican Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas urged senators to consider this secret evidence before reaching any conclusions about Clinton’s guilt or innocence.
Until the dramatic turnabout in recent weeks, Clinton was the target of individual pursuers, some of them clearly obsessed by the notion that he is guilty of crimes they could never quite prove. They included the Pittsburgh financier Richard Mellon Scaife, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, a collection of House and Senate committee investigators, radio commentators, and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. Most could be dismissed as partisans or fringe players and some as mere kooks. But impeachment was the constitutionally authorized handiwork of the majority party in the House of Representatives, the people’s house, against the wishes of about two thirds of the American people.
It is a puzzle. How can a bare majority of largely dispirited and agenda-less Republicans, many of whom are in fact moderates, so defy public sentiment? Why would they impeach a popular and by no means powerless president in the knowledge that the Senate is unlikely to convict and remove him, thus leaving him in office to oppose them and possibly seek retribution over the next two years? Even a wounded lame-duck president can hurt a congressman in ways great and small: failing to in-vite a hostile representative to a major ribbon-cutting ceremony in his home district, forgetting to provide White House tour passes for hometown bigwigs, campaigning for his opponent in the next elections. In 1996, Clinton gave Republican foes just a taste of his power when he unilaterally declared much of the Republican-dominated state of Utah off-limits to coal mining against the wishes of its entire congressional delegation, an act that won him praise from environmentalists. Needlessly antagonizing such a president seems to make no political sense.
The Republican anti-Clinton strategy has already cost them five seats in the new House of Representatives, giving them a teetering majority that is at the mercy of any six members who decide to vote with the Democrats or any twelve who abstain on a given vote, provided the Democrats hold firm. The disappointing election cost them their own Moses, Speaker Newt Gingrich, the self-proclaimed Definer of Civilization, who resigned both his speakership and his House seat. Their fixation on elevating Clinton’s sexual misconduct into a high crime attracted the attention of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, whose investigations promptly cost the Republicans the services of Gingrich’s heir apparent, Representative Robert Livingston of Louisiana, who resigned when it became clear that his own past adultery was about to be exposed. Impeachment has driven the party down in public opinion polls and left it with a House leadership—Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both of Texas—so unattractive to Republicans that neither was even briefly considered to replace Livingston as the new face of the Republican Party. That honor has fallen to Representative Dennis Hastert of Illinois, a heretofore obscure former high school teacher who shows every sign of remaining obscure.
What drove the Republicans over this cliff? Part of the answer is the deep-seated and almost irrational hatred of Clinton, the man, that abides within a steady one third of the electorate. For six years, the party’s right wing and its allied radio talk-show hosts have denounced Clinton as a lying, draft-dodging, pot-smoking womanizer, notwithstanding the fact that many of their own heroes—Gingrich, for example—are at least as vulnerable to some of the same cruel accusations. It has been curious to listen to Republicans fume about Clinton’s avoidance of military service in Vietnam, and then go on to sing the praises of former Vice President Dan Quayle, Rush Limbaugh, or Senator Phil Gramm of Texas. It will be interesting, in addition, to see whether the Republicans’ consensus front-runner for the 2000 presidential nomination, Governor George W. Bush of Texas, with his admittedly riotous youth, can survive the morality inquisition the Republicans have set as the new standard for high national office.
Even without this hatred, Clinton was viewed from the start as a usurper. Former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas set the tone of Republican contempt for the President when he declared on election night of 1992 that he, Dole, would represent the 57 percent of the electorate who had voted against Clinton and would filibuster all major Democratic legislation. In his book The Choice, Bob Woodward reports that White House spokesman Mike McCurry presciently warned before the 1996 election that if Clinton adopted centrist, Republican-style policies, the Republicans
can only win by doing the single most dangerous thing for Clinton… which is to totally destroy him as a human being…. They will do everything they can to turn him into a liar or turn him into a cheat or turn him into a philanderer. That basically is the danger here if you don’t have a substantive grounds for debate.
(Unfortunately, Clinton gave his opponents ample ammunition for their attacks.)
It was all-out war from the start, yet Clinton slowly recovered and for the past couple of years has been far more popular than any of his Republican opponents.
Of the House’s 435 seats, about 180 are from solid Republican districts, according to Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York’s Long Island suburbs. Many of the safest seats are in the South, where race-based redistricting, designed to ensure black-majority districts, has had the simultaneous effect of siphoning black Democratic votes out of white-majority districts that are now almost universally Republican. (It is wrong, however, to think that the War Against Clinton is a replay of the War Between the States, South against the North. Though some of Clinton’s fiercest opponents represent districts in the South, they were not born there or raised in a spirit of Southern revanchism. Newt Gingrich was born in Pennsylvania, Representative Bob Barr of Georgia is a native of Iowa, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas is originally from North Dakota.) For such representatives, challenging Clinton is more or less risk-free—but they are not a majority and could not have impeached the President on their own.
The explanation for the House’s defiance of majority opinion lies elsewhere. In today’s Republican Party, moderate congressmen, even popular incumbents who would win a general election by overwhelming margins, are hostage to the party’s right wing. With few exceptions, they are vulnerable because of the low turnouts in the primary elections, in which a relative handful of determined conservatives could oust the most popular incumbent while most voters are not paying attention. The incumbent would win a general election, but does not survive the primary. Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, cited the fate of a moderate California Republican congressional candidate, Brooks Firestone, as an example of the internal pressures in the GOP. “Firestone was a mainstream conservative candidate who could have taken the seat away from a Democrat [Lois Capps, running last January in a three-way race to succeed her late husband, Walter, in a special election],” Frank said to a reporter as he stood in the Speaker’s Lobby outside the House chamber on the eve of the impeachment vote.
But Tom DeLay supported the extremely conservative Tom Bordonaro. That showed that DeLay and the right wing could beat the party establishment in a primary. The message now is that if you oppose impeachment, you will face a primary fight backed by the House leadership.
Bordonaro, financed by DeLay and other conservative congressmen, split the Republican vote with Firestone, and Capps won her husband’s seat and kept it last November.
Paradoxically, as Professor Nicol Rae of Florida International University points out in his compact, in-residence study of the Republican-controlled House, the primary was instituted as a democratizing reform, to take the nominating process out of the hands of party machines. In fact, the primary process now gives enormous power to well-organized, well-financed, highly vocal groups like the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association, or some of the more militant anti-abortion organizations.
New Jersey’s Republican Representative Marge Roukema, for example, won reelection over the Democrat Mike Schneider last November by 105,000 votes to 55,000. But the preceding June she had narrowly escaped a primary challenge from Scott Garrett, an opponent of gun-control laws, whom she defeated by only 16,200 to 14,470. As she considered the political costs of a vote on impeachment, Roukema, a moderate Republican, had to be more concerned about her next primary, in June of 2000, than the general election five months afterward. Roukema decided to vote for impeachment. Her reasons, she said, were Clinton’s conduct, but no politician makes such decisions without at least considering the political consequences. In the primary elections of 2000, almost any Republican incumbent who dared to vote against impeachment could fall victim to a well-timed broadcast from Rush Limbaugh or a dozen busloads of voters organized by Operation Rescue.