MORE

The Revolt of the Elites

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."

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.

As the Democrats move into the soft-support column, the centrist and even liberal press is trooping into opposition. The editorialists at The New York Times and The Washington Post have been cloyingly moralistic in their condemnations. Liberal commentators such as Garry Wills and Lars-Erik Nelson have been less so, but have gone further than the Times and the Post by calling on Clinton to resign - partly in revulsion at his behavior, but also because resignation offers a way to preserve the positive aspects of his legacy, and just possibly enhance whatever progressive prospects are abroad in the land.

Now, if I were sure this last point was right, that lifting the Clinton cloud would halt the Republicans in their tracks, I might just join the resignation chorus. After all, the issue for me isn't the specific sins that Clinton has acknowledged or the crimes that have been alleged. Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, one-sided and exploitative though it surely was, and the lies he may have told to cover it up while giving a deposition in a politically initiated civil suit, just don't measure up to the Constitution's standard for high crimes and misdemeanors. But then there's the high crime of subverting the Democrats' agenda, tepidly decent though it may be, and willy-nilly promoting Trent Lott's. That doesn't constitute an impeachable offense either, but if Clinton's resignation can avert it, then Clinton's resignation certainly becomes - well, thinkable.

But no more than that. A Clinton resignation would also send a message to future presidents that we might come to wish had never been sent. Presidents, after all, can and have become isolated, ineffectual, unpopular and self-subverting for all manner of bad and good reasons: Ulysses Grant because he was surrounded by crooks, Harry Truman because he was surrounded by Republicans (they controlled Congress throughout much of his presidency) and, especially after he sacked Douglas MacArthur, because he had abysmal polls. If Bill Clinton steps down because he can no longer deal with Congress, because he's lost the confidence of political and media elites, he'd set a terrible precedent for his successors. An elite consensus is a mighty thing in America, but the last group to argue that it should outweigh the verdict of the electorate was the Federalist Party of the 1810s - right before it died for lack of support.

Since late August, however, a new Clinton-Must-Go alliance has sprung up, an ad hoc coalition both too embarrassing and too ridiculous for either principal party to acknowledge its existence. One partner in this new alliance is the populist right, the Clinton haters whose loathing of the president is exceeded only by their loathing of the media, which they view as liberal, secular and soft-on-Bill. The other partner is the very same media elite, the Cokies, the Donaldsons and their ilk, who have joined the right-wing critics in their belief that Clinton has overstayed his - and certainly, their - welcome. The right loathes Clinton for cultural-political reasons, some of them moral, most of them not. The mediacrats loathe Clinton for more purely political reasons: He has squandered his power and their trust, and surely he should know better than to govern without their consent.

This is a new and bizarre alignment, and it's hard to say whether it will do more to bring Clinton down or prop him up. The 60 percent of Americans who thus far have stuck with Clinton are likely to stick with him all the more if they discern a Drudge-Limbaugh-Donaldson-Koppel united front arrayed against him. Once the Starr Report makes its way up the Hill and down again, once Americans have been sloshed in the sleaze it will doubtless document, the question remaining is whether that 60 percent will consider Bill Clinton's sexual depredations sufficient grounds for impeachment. I'd be surprised if they did.

For America is neither a theocracy nor a parliamentary state, but a republic with a more or less directly elected executive. In such a state, neither sexual sleaze, with its attendant deceptions, nor the alienation of elite confidence, with its attendant decline in one's effectiveness, ought to loom so large that it overturns the outcome of a presidential election. Clinton's offenses may be rank, but that doesn't make them high crimes and misdemeanors - any more than the betrayals of trust on the part of his newly minted Democratic critics are high crimes and misdemeanors.

Bill Clinton may one day sizzle in hell, and never again hear an encouraging word on This Week With Those Yutzes Who Succeeded David Brinkley. History may decide that he threw it all away, both for himself and, however temporarily, for his party. But if we take our imperfect democracy seriously, neither God nor the glitterati can - or should - bring a president down.