By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Ted Soqui|
Here — or so the theory would have it — the people rule.
I know it’s just a theory. We’ve had presidents elected on a platform of X who governed on a platform of Anti-X. Woodrow Wilson won a re-election by promising to keep us out of war and then proceeded to get us into one. Much the same could be said of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. It must also be said, however, that each of these presidents persuaded a majority of their countrymen to go along with these changes. They obtained — in Johnson’s case, briefly — the consent of the governed for their reversal of field.
But negating a presidential election is a vastly more radical undertaking than changing even a fundamental policy. Truth is, we’ve done it only once — and not in the case of Andrew Johnson, who, after all, was only elected to be Lincoln’s vice president, and who never himself obtained the kind of support required to govern the nation. No, the one and only full-fledged negation came in the matter of Richard Nixon, and it happened only after the emergence of the closest thing to a total consensus in American political history — a consensus that Nixon must go. With the court-ordered release of tapes on which Nixon was heard ordering the FBI to cover up the Watergate burglary, every last member of the House Judiciary Committee — and the last member, by the way, was a young Mississippi Republican named Trent Lott — signed on to the first article of impeachment. The committee supported impeachment by a 38-0 margin, while polls were showing the public supported overturning their presidential vote of two years previous by a 3-1 margin. A clear majority of Republicans supported Nixon’s impeachment.
Up to now, this is how we’ve negated presidential elections in America — only for matters that the overwhelming, bipartisan majority of the public and Congress believe rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. The life of the law, Justice Holmes wrote, has been experience, and by that standard, the law in America has been that only a unified public can overturn a presidential election.
It can be argued, I suppose, that the American public, while not unified on the question of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, at least has a huge tilt in one direction. That direction, of course, is against. The latest CBS/New York Times poll, taken last Sunday after the conclusion of the House Judiciary Committee hearings, asked respondents whether their congressional representative should vote for or against impeachment, to which 30 percent answered "For" and 64 percent, "Against."
And yet, within the next day or so, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives may very well impeach President Clinton. Put aside for a moment what this says about the Republicans’ assessment of Clinton. Focus on what this says about the Republicans’ assessment of us— the American people. Regicide is one thing. Plebicide — the dismissal of popular control of government — is something else again.
Was it only a few short months ago that the Republicans were vowing not to proceed without widespread public support? Actually, it was just this September that the Republicans justified their release of the unedited Starr Report and the unedited video of the president’s grand-jury testimony by saying that they wanted the American people to see the evidence and draw their own conclusion. (And they did, which is that Clinton should not be impeached.) It was just this summer that Henry Hyde said, "Ultimately, this has to be a bipartisan exercise. It’s important that we have the confidence of the American people."
Today, the impeachment drive under way in Congress is not only not bipartisan. It is also being undertaken by a lame-duck Congress, a number of whose members were actually defeated in last month’s election, in which impeachment was a decisive issue. A few of the outgoing Democrats were defeated, as were more of the outgoing Republicans — five more Republicans than Democrats, in fact. A Congress whom the electorate repudiated, whose leader, Newt Gingrich, felt compelled to resign from, is now on the verge of impeaching a president whom the electorate endorsed. This is perfectly legal, of course. But it’s impossible to imagine a major governmental endeavor more lacking in legitimacy — particularly if Clinton is impeached by a margin of five or fewer votes. (I must have missed the particular Federalist Paper in which the founders made the case for lame-duck Congresses impeaching a president along party lines for lying to cover up sexual improprieties.)
What has happened to the congressional Republicans? How have they lost all sense of moral and legal proportionality, all sense of democratic propriety — not to mention all their rudimentary political judgment? How can an entire national political party go collectively berserk?