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The Impeachment Aftermath

Kris Schnee

It's finally over! After years of continuous investigation and an excruciatingly long and painful impeachment process, President Bill Clinton is finally off the hook. Failing to get the two-thirds vote needed to remove him from office, the two charges against him perjury and obstruction of justice have been dropped. So there is now no threat to Mr. Clinton as he serves out the remainder of his term, and the American people and media can finally talk about something else. But was this whole ordeal completely pointless, or have we learned anything from it?

The most obvious lesson is that Bill Clinton, personally, is invincible. Apparently, the American people continue to love him no matter what he does. The polls throughout his presidency show consistently that a majority, usually a large one, approves of the job he has been doing as our leader. Rumors of adultery and sexual harassment followed him during the 1992 campaign, and yet he was successful. We learned that he had had a long-term adulterous relationship with a young White House intern. He went on television, wagged his finger and said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky;" we then found out that he was lying. He was then faced with multiple charges regarding his attempts to cover up the affair, which included lying under oath and witness tampering. He became the second President in American history to be impeached. And yet, his approval ratings remained high, and have even risen since the Lewinsky scandal broke out. How could any man have such consistent support despite being (in the words of one Republican) a "scumbag?"

Maybe it's Mr. Clinton's charm which has kept him in favor with so many people. But that can't be the whole answer. Clinton seems to be the extreme example of a trend going back several presidential administrations. President Carter's term ended in terrible inflation combined with slow economic growth; he lost his position in 1980 to Reagan, who was re-elected during a period of rapid growth and general prosperity despite the existence of the Iran-Contra scandal. Bush followed him, but suddenly lost his high popularity when a recession appeared, allowing Clinton to take his place. Bill Clinton has presided over a long stretch of continuous economic growth, combining low inflation with low unemployment an unusual and wonderful situation for the country and no scandal can hurt him.

There could very well be a cause-and-effect relationship here regardless of anything they actually do, Presidents are loved when the economy is good and loathed when it is not. It doesn't even matter whether their economic policies cause the growth or recessions the country experiences Democrats would like to believe that Reagan's tax cuts did not cause the economic boom of the 80s, and Clinton's tax increases and numerous spending programs probably did not cause the prosperity we now see. But Presidents rise and fall based on economic fortune, whether it is their doing or not as the campaign slogan goes, "it's the economy, stupid," which matters to the American people.

Conversely, "character", which used to be a key issue in selecting honorable and responsible leaders, no longer seems to matter in the people's eyes. Collectively, a majority of our country has decided that what the President does in his private life is none of our business; he cannot be removed from office for any action, even a criminal one, which is not directly related to his ability to govern. (Logically, then, he should stay in power even if he is revealed to be a rapist, murderer, or drug dealer). Only his public conduct matters.

But some would say that a President who is, privately, a serial killer could still be removed; the Constitution's impeachment clause exists to protect us from Presidents who commit "high crimes", not "low crimes" like lying about sex the sort of things any American would do. Even if this argument were more than a sorry attempt to defend a guilty man by dragging the entire country down to Mr. Clinton's level of ethics, it would still be inaccurate. Perjury, defined as deliberate lying under oath (even about sex), is a felony carrying a potential prison sentence of several years. It is not a trivial affair. But if a felony charge (which, by the way, suggests that a president cannot be trusted to obey any law) is not serious enough to warrant impeachment, is any crime "high" enough?

The members of Congress had to ponder this question when the House voted on impeachment, and as the Senate sat on Clinton's trial. But did a single one of them vote according to the evidence of Clinton's guilt or innocence? Probably, many of the representatives and senators really did vote out of firm conviction, but it seems hard to believe that a pure vote of conscience by everyone would have split the way it did. That's another lesson learned: the impeachment process is based in party politics, not necessarily on truth. The Congress is not an impartial jury; it is an assembly of over 500 individual agendas. The Republicans consistently presented a nearly united front in condemning the President and pushing removal from office, while the Democrats were amazingly consistent in their defense of Clinton. The final trial votes are telling the only "bipartisanship" came from several Republicans voting "not guilty" along with every single Democrat. Not one of the 45 Democratic senators found the evidence against the president convincing. This seems to be a rather large coincidence. Some members of both parties corruptly voted out of self-interest, and more may have simply formed their opinions based on what they preferred to believe.

In the future, we should expect to see revenge when a scandal occurs. When the Lewinsky affair broke out, Democrats quickly reminded everyone that the Republicans were untrustworthy judges, because former Speaker Newt Gingrich had once been fined for an ethics violation which was not actually a crime. When Gingrich resigned, Bob Livingston took over, and immediately Democrats moved to attack him. Pornographer-king Larry Flynt published a full-page newspaper ad offering money for information on sexual affairs involving congressmen. His blackmail attempt worked, and Livingston resigned in disgrace when his own past, non-criminal adultery was revealed. Livingston's destruction added force to the Democrats' claim that "everybody does it."

Meanwhile, a ruthless attack on prosecutor Kenneth Starr continued for months and has still not ended. White House adviser James Carville wrote a book expressing his desire to hang Mr. Starr "and the horse he rode in on." Even though Starr was just doing his job (if perhaps too zealously), he was condemned for digging up evidence of real crimes committed by the President. Now the independent prosecutor law signed by Clinton himself in his first term will probably be abolished to protect future leaders who have something to hide. And anyone who denounces a President as a criminal and calls for his impeachment will be threatened and demonized. Given the present political climate, we can expect the next Republican Presidential candidate unless it's Elizabeth Dole to be hounded day and night by Democrats looking for adultery or any other misdeed. The Republicans would be wise to do their own investigation before nominating anyone in 2000.

The process is all over now, and the scandals of the Clinton administration will die away. But we've learned some interesting things about how the political process works, and about what to expect in the future. Do you feel proud?