Death of a scandal

By Patrick G. Ruffini
web posted March 1999

In the heat of battle, proud partisans are not usually given to dispassionate analysis. Now that this is all over, it is time to make a sober account of this debacle.

The impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton was essentially inevitable. To quibble over whether it could (or should) have been stopped is to argue against political reality. Whenever a political party is confronted with scandal in the opposing party's ranks, restraint is not generally the order of the day. It is the essential nature, if not the duty, of a political party to exploit such sublime opportunities for all they are worth. In fact, as their constituencies see it, they would be derelict in their responsibility if they did not have at their wounded foe. The Republican Party was damned when they impeached Bill Clinton. But they would have been equally damned if they had not. Happily, the long-term damage of either strategy is negligible.

On the one hand, the GOP alienated a multitude of moderates who, despite their outrage, are still fickle and will forget all this when distracted by a new political paradigm in 2000. And on the other hand, they would have angered the usual cadre of scratchy right-wing activists. Big deal, right?

The bad news is that in the short run, the GOP must deal with the wreckage of what it has wrought. In rejecting the road of restraint, the GOP knowingly walked into a trap hoping that on the off chance things went their way, their hated nemesis would be disgraced and political nirvana would ensue. But in order to make this bet, the GOP had to believe in the improbable: that Clinton's resignation or removal from office was at least possible given the circumstances. And it is in doing this that they erred, for they made common cause with a traditional enemy and have emerged discredited.

It has been said that by embracing Kenneth Starr's prosecutorial methods, the Republicans became the party that fell in love with intrusive government. I am unconvinced by this analysis but yet intrigued by the notion that the GOP has somehow sold its soul to an enemy in their pursuit of the President. This enemy is not Big Government, but rather the Washington media Establishment.

It was the media that created this notion that offenses surrounding sex were somehow more impeachable than numerous other legitimate examples of corruption which would eventually include the use of the American military in Sudan and Iraq for the President's own personal, private gain. The Republican Party pursued an impeachment against the public will in part because they had the implicit blessing of the media and the Washington Establishment. They would not have done it had the media not legitimated this investigation with their wall-to-wall coverage of it. It is almost eerie how the GOP would act on the impulse of liberals like Sam Donaldson and Tim Russert who in the early days of the scandal created the impression that the Clinton presidency was teetering on the brink. The GOP took the bait and decided to provide the last push. In taking this all so seriously, the GOP for one brief interlude became the party of the The New York Times, The Washington Post, and MSNBC.

Surprisingly, the most palpable political legacy of impeachment is that there are ten Republicans running for President right now as opposed to only two Democrats. The fissures that began to open in the Democratic Party in late 1997 over free trade, environmental Luddism, and labor extortionism have all closed as Democrats now march in lockstep with Clinton, and therefore Gore.

To be sure, the question of Democratic unity was a close call. The flip side of the Republicans embracing the cause so tediously obsessed over by Geraldo and Larry King is that many establishment Democrats, including the editorial boards of the Post and the Times, by their apoplectic reactions to the Monica mess began to honestly question whether the holy grail of progressive government was being fatally undermined by Clinton's legal sophistries and half-truths. Impeachment may have no impact on how people will vote in 2000, but it will have a profound impact on how that contest will be structured. In that we had a chance to split the Democrats to pieces on legitimate policy issues and thus undermine the standing of Al Gore, 1998 was an opportunity missed.

It is tempting to adopt the conservative analysis that the Democrats merely fell into line once the polls told them that perjury and obstruction of justice was a certain route to victory, and not to shame and disaster.

The endless repetition of polls to this effect cemented that conventional wisdom and pulled conscience Democrats into line with public opinion. But that is only part of our story. The other, more profound element at work was that people simply came to believe that no matter how bad Clinton's transgressions were, grand jury investigations and impeachments were worse. History should mark the strange allegiances that defined this whole affair.

The Republicans made common cause with a liberal media that abandoned ideology for ratings. And the American people made common cause with one evil so that they could slay what they saw as a greater evil. It may make no sense to you or me, but that is the way that it happened.

Perhaps the more sophisticated judgment would have been to let this all go a long time ago. Then, we could have let Clinton's sins define this whole matter, with no intermediation from the Office of Independent Counsel and the President's political foes. The evolving editorial stance of The Economist epitomizes the trouble with impeachment. The journal's genuine outrage and calls for resignation throughout much of the year were in the end overshadowed by their earnest plea against the excesses of impeachment. The most regretable consequence of impeachment was that the President's crimes became moot once the President's pursuers became the story. Correctly or not, the American people questioned the appropriateness of using a sledgehammer to squash a cockroach.

I appreciate these arguments for restraint. But they also happen to be irrelevant and disingenuous. Remember once again the last time restraint prevailed on any side amidst a great scandal. And without a partisan and prosecutorial witch hunt, Clinton's misdeeds would never have been exposed in the first place. Low popularity was the price we paid for revealing the essential truth about Bill Clinton.

Whether impeachment was right or wrong is a question that never really concerned me that much, as impeachment is really nothing more than the exercise of a political power which exists separate from the moral realm. The Democrats made the relevant and sublimely apropos point that this essentially victimless crime did not rise to the level of a Watergate. But by this very standard, not even Watergate rose to the level of Watergate. Watergate was a third-rate burglary. This was a third-rate perjury.

In this high tech age, the high crimes are never the crimes themselves but the coverups and the media feeding frenzies they inspire. The same media scrutiny that has essentially made Presidential conspiracies against the state impossible is now responsible for making the reportage of low crimes into an all-consuming whirlwind which undermines the legitimacy of the state just as surely as any high crime would. In Watergate, the true mission of impeachment was as much about excising a wrong as it was about cleansing the spirit of a nation after two years of media-driven hysteria. This is what this impeachment could have been about as well. True, the Democrats played their trump card to great advantage, repeating time after time the essentially private nature of the original offenses. But the Republicans had one too and never played it. They could have told America that Bill Clinton was solely responsible for making a tawdry sex affair into a national nightmare. They could have repeated it like a broken record. But they didn't.

And because they did not, nobody recognized the very public abuses embodied by Clinton's repeated lies, obfuscations, and refusals to end this whole ordeal by confessing earlier. In the end, that is the real reason why Clinton should have been impeached and removed from office.

Could things have turned out differently? Perhaps they could have, especially had the GOP articulated the message I outlined above. This was obviously the thing to do since the very moment Clinton went before the grand jury in August. But I return once again to the sense of inertia and irony that has characterized this incident. Inertia — because the natural inclination towards a full-throttle assault on a scandal-weary opponent led the GOP down the road to disaster, and irony — because only an investigation destined to fail from the outset could have done our country the service of revealing the Other Bill Clinton — the man who paid the price of the ambition of the glib wonder-boy from Hot Springs. All along, this affair followed its own inner logic to the place we are at today.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Patrick Ruffini is the web master of Patrick Ruffini's America and the chairman of the Penn College Republicans.

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