The Revolt of the Elites 

The media and the moralists go gunning for Bill

Wednesday, Sep 9 1998
So what do we do with our boy Bill, our empath-in-chief whose own pleasures and pains, and the consequences thereof, now render all other politics moot?

The Clinton haters cry out for quick impeachment. The Republican congressional leaders want a slow, deliberative process that will drown out all Democratic attempts to talk of anything else. Among liberals and Democrats, the "R" word - resignation - increasingly comes up in polite company, even in print. Certainly, the alternative to all these - staggering along with a morally and, perhaps, mortally wounded president - sounds like the worst of all possible outcomes.

But it may also be the only appropriate alternative for the kind of presidential democracy that we are. If we had a parliamentary system - a system where the political elite can pull the trigger on the prime minister, as Britain's Tories did to Margaret Thatcher when they feared she was dragging them down - Bill Clinton would already be gone. But in our own very nonparliamentary system, removing a president absent the kind of fundamental infractions to which the Constitution refers means reinventing our country in odd and disquieting ways. Neither sin nor political ineffectiveness (a kind of sin in itself) has ever been the basis for a president's leaving office in midterm. Neither the right-wing moralists nor the political establishment, by themselves or together, have ever overturned a presidential election. Now the moralists are emboldened, while the establishment seems surprisingly eager to see just how far it can go in bringing a president down. The resulting hybrid has the Beltway talking in Old Testament terms; it is a golden moment for hypocrisy.

"I was present in the Roosevelt Room in January when the president categorically denied any sexual involvement with Monica Lewinsky," Senator Dianne Feinstein said immediately following Clinton's four-minute post-testimony tirade last month. "I believed him. His remarks last evening leave me with a deep sense of sadness in that my trust in his credibility has been badly shattered."

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I know just how the senator feels. I was present in the room, or more accurately in the crowd, at several campaign rallies in 1992 when Feinstein expressed support for then-candidate Clinton's call for universal health insurance, only to see her turn against the idea during the battles that raged over Clinton's plan in '94. To this day, more than 6 million of the senator's California constituents have no health coverage; surely, some of them have had untreated illnesses, some of them died unnecessary deaths. Still, it never occurred to me that this kind of shattering of credibility, no matter the consequences, might be an impeachable offense.

None of this is to minimize the anguish and anger that the Democrats (at least, some of the less hypocritical Democrats) feel about their leader, or the legitimacy of that anguish and anger. By his own admission, the president is a sleazeball (though not, as Congressman Dan Burton had it, a scumbag - close but no cigar, Dan). He engaged in conduct for which functionaries are generally sacked, and in order to conceal it, he almost surely lied in a civil deposition, and admittedly lied to his staff, his colleagues and the American people. His conduct now threatens his program and his party, and even if his affair was, as he argued, a private matter, his program and his party were anything but. It is not a private matter but a public calamity if the Republicans pick up five seats and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate this November, or consolidate their now-shaky hold on the House - both widely predicted consequences of Clinton's inability to contain the scandal.

Bill Clinton never commended himself to his fellow Democrats as a moral exemplar; he was the political leader who could lead them back to power. The power came at a price, of course: The Democrats would have to forfeit their support for welfare, some civil liberties and the occasional budget deficit, but in return they could at least raise the minimum wage and lower the unemployment rate. And if this formula has yet to work wonders for the party's congressional delegation or its conference of governors, which are both smaller today than when Clinton came to power, it at least ensured the presence of a Democrat in the White House.

Now the master politician of the age has transformed himself into the Arkansas Albatross. "There goes my Clinton fund-raiser," one Democratic congressman embroiled in a close re-election race recently told me. "And the mailing where Clinton attests to my achievements and my character: There goes that." Lucky Gray Davis already had Clinton in to raise $3 million for him several weeks ago, before the president lost the mandate of the elites. Poor Barbara Boxer, who needs the money much more than Davis does and who has no lead at all, still has her major Clinton fund-raiser scheduled for later this month - conceivably, right after the executive summary of the Starr report is released to the press.

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