I’m beginning to think it wouldn’t be so terrible if Congress impeaches Bill Clinton.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t for a moment think that what Clinton has done in the Lewinsky affair and its cover-up constitutes an impeachable offense. Were I a member of Congress, I could not in good conscience cast any vote other than No on the impeachment resolutions that Henry Hyde’s fuglemen will forward to their colleagues later this month.
And yet, the consequences of impeachment, in at least two hugely important particulars, would be . . . well, terrific. I’m referring, in ascending order of importance, to the ritual suicide of the Republican Party and the preservation of Social Security.
For the Republicans, impeachment has become their Frankenstein’s monster. They bolted it together in their laboratory and jolted it to life. Now, it lurches across the political landscape, still wreaking havoc despite the efforts of angry mobs to kill it, threatening to bring the process of government to a halt — and putting its creators in mortal peril.
For if the GOP actually does impeach Bill Clinton on a party-line vote (by current estimates, fewer than five House Democrats, out of 206, will join them), all other public business in the nation’s capital will simply grind to a halt. The Senate, rather than turn its attention to reforming HMOs or campaign finance, to increasing funding for school construction or raising the minimum wage, will be compelled to conduct a trial of the president — certain to end in acquittal. Nonetheless, the trial would monopolize the Senate’s attention for who knows how long — two months? four months? eight months? The Senate hasn’t done this sort of thing since 1868; it will likely take a month or two just to come up with the rules.
In short, the Republicans will have effectively closed down government for the second time in three years. By one measure, it won’t be as bad as the first instance: Basic services will still be delivered; nothing will actually stop save the formulation of national policy by both the legislative and the executive branches. By another measure, however, it will be worse than the shutdown of ’95. Then, at least, the Republicans could claim they didn’t realize until two weeks into the closure that the public didn’t support it. This time, however, the public has already spoken. In every poll for the past 10 months, it has told Congress that this wasn’t the stuff of impeachment. In a Gallup Poll taken just last week, 64 percent opposed the impeachment of the president.
We are not, of course, a nation of polls, but we are indeed a nation of elections. And in the election four weeks ago, the public said in no uncertain terms that impeachment was not the proper punishment for Bill Clinton’s conduct. If there had been any doubt about this matter, Newt Gingrich cleared it up with his last-minute ads imploring electors to vote as if their ballots were a referendum on impeachment. And they did, which is why Newt Gingrich is gone.
But impeachment lingers. Henry Hyde — the most overrated national father figure since Gerald Ford — putters along as if the election hadn’t happened. In two weeks’ time, he will almost surely bring an impeachment resolution to the floor of the House. And should a sufficient number of Republicans vote to send the matter to the Senate for trial, the ensuing public outrage will be lasting and profound. The reaction against the first government shutdown was almost enough to cost the GOP control of the House two years ago. The reaction against this second shutdown — undertaken this time against the expressed wishes of the American electorate — will not only strip Congress from the Republicans’ control two years hence, but brand them well into the next century as a party at once too partisan and too puritanical to entrust with running the government.
For Los Angeles–area Republican congressmen in Democratic-leaning districts, support for the impeachment resolutions looks increasingly like a ticket to early retirement. Republican James Rogan carried his Glendale-Pasadena district over challenger Barry Gordon this November by a scant 3 percent, but Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole in the same district by 8 percent two years ago. GOP-er Stephen Horn carried his Long Beach district last month with an unimpressive 53 percent of the vote against an underfunded challenger who waged a desultory campaign; Clinton carried the district by 17 points over Dole in ’96. Since November’s election put the Democrats firmly in control of the post-2000 reapportionment process in California, Rogan and Horn may be Dead Men Walking in any case, but a Yes vote on impeachment would be tantamount to signing their own death warrants. As it would be, and should be — if impeachment passes — for the entire GOP.
An even happier casualty of the impeachment process would likely be the privatization of Social Security. President Clinton has proclaimed the next several months a historic window of opportunity in which he and the Republican Congress can reach a deal on restructuring the nation’s foremost social-insurance program. Impeachment, God willing, slams that window shut.