Photo by Ted Soqui

Even the maximalists are minimizing the enormity of what the Republicans did last week. The redoubtable Pat Buchanan, calling upon the Senate to hang Bill Clinton from the highest yardarm, commends the House Republicans for having “bravely defied our political, academic, media and cultural elites.” Buchanan is seldom given to understatement, but surely House Republicans were braver, and more reckless, than that. They also defied the American people — and almost every norm of political legitimacy that underpins a democratic government.

For Saturday, December 19, was not simply another bad day at the national office. It was the most awful day America has known since that June night, 30 years ago, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated — the last time the judgment of the American electorate was so entirely negated.

The impending trial, say Republican Senate leaders Trent Lott and Don Nickles (two more minimizers), can be conducted in a couple of weeks — unless the president’s attorneys want to drag it out by mounting a vigorous defense.

Every past precedent and current procedure of the Senate, however, suggests otherwise. The 1868 trial of Andrew Johnson took 73 days, though the Senate was smaller then and virtually no facts in the case were in dispute. (Johnson was accused of violating the Tenure of Office Act by firing his secretary of war.) Indeed, the Senate has conducted more than a dozen impeachment trials in its 209-year history, and the shortest one took 34 days.

And consider the process. Every one of the 100 senators will be able to question every witness. In a body where serial babbling is the norm, this hardly portends a speedy trial.

The past leaders of the Republican Party are warning the current capos not to push this case any further. Gerald Ford and Bob Dole have been commending the censure option to the GOP hotheads for some time now — but they are yesterday’s Republicans, immune to the call of holy war which has mysteriously swept through the party’s congressional delegation in general, and struck down Trent Lott in particular. Even in the context of last week’s surreality, Lott’s refusal to support the attack on Iraq stands out for its sundering of both governmental and Republican folkways — the foreign-policy analog of the Republican support for the governmental shutdown three years before. (Lott, we should remember, was Newt Gingrich’s mentor during their time together in the House in the early- and mid-’80s.)

The spectacle of Ford and Dole endeavoring to rein in the impeachment hawks calls to mind those Indian-camp scenes in classic Westerns where the old chiefs are shouted down at their counsel fires by young bucks painted for war. As best I can recall, what the old chiefs usually say is that the warriors can never defeat the white man; that accommodation is dictated by the simple fact that there are too many whites; that if the braves insist on fighting, they will lose. As best I can recall, the young bucks never listen and make straight for the warpath — if they didn’t, there’d be no movie. The Republicans have no comparable excuse.

Indeed, a considerable number of Republicans argue that the political consequences of their acts will be negligible. Dan Schnur, a former senior aide to Pete Wilson, contended in a Sacramento Bee column this week that the public isn’t all that up-in-arms over the impeachment. Like Buchanan, he insisted that genuine anger is confined to the elites: “With the exception of Alec Baldwin, Betty Friedan and Toni Morrison,” he wrote, “the outrage never came.”

Schnur and others also argue that the vote will carry no greater weight than, say, Congress’ 1993 vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which left many Democratic voters angry at many Dem ocratic members for supporting the measure, but resulted in no diminution of voter support when the next election rolled around. (Carnegie Mellon professor William Keech made this case in the L.A. Times on Tuesday.) But this is a ludicrous analysis, even putting aside the fact that Democratic turnout nose-dived in the ’94 elections partly in reaction to disappointment over the NAFTA vote.

For the outrage that Dan Schnur has failed to discern is driving some of the most remarkable shifts in public sentiment that American politics has ever known. Since Saturday’s impeachment vote, Bill Clinton’s favorability rating has risen in three network polls to above 70 percent. The congressional Republicans’ favorability rating, by contrast, has sunk to a historic low point of 31 percent in the new Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, while their unfavorability rating has soared to 57 percent. In the wake of the impeachment vote, the entire center and center-right of the political spectrum is in full flight from the congressional GOP. In the time between the Gallup poll of a week ago and the one that immediately followed the impeachment, Clinton’s favorability rose sharply among independents, Midwesterners (by 16 percent), Republicans and even conservatives (by 14 percent). We’re not talking Toni Morrison here.

Perhaps most tellingly, the public finds the Republicans guilty of the very charge they leveled against Clinton: abuse of power. In the post-impeachment Gallup Poll, 54 percent of respondents agreed that the congressional GOP had abused their constitutional power. That is the reason why the impeachment vote isn’t just another controversial vote. To the contrary, a vote to impeach the president on charges that an overwhelming majority of the public clearly believes do not rise to the level of impeachable offenses is a vote that negates the very basis of popular sovereignty.

Saturday’s impeachment vote yanked the mask of moderation off those L.A.-area House Republicans who had previously sought to project an image of judiciousness. Glendale Republican James Rogan was one of those Judiciary Committee members who decided to press ahead with the charges even after the public delivered its anti-impeachment verdict in the November elections. Long Beach Republican Steve Horn, who once upon a time was a practicing political scientist, was strangely drawn to the notion of election nullification, and voted to impeach the president on all four counts. Both Horn and Rogan come from districts that Clinton carried handily in the last two presidential elections — districts which they now are likely to lose in the election two years hence.

When historians look back on the events of last week, they will doubtless marvel that the Republicans not only forced through an impeachment with little popular backing and of questionable legitimacy, but did it in such a way as to maximize their own marginality. They forbade the House from voting on a censure option that poll after poll had shown the public supported. They insisted upon the impeachment during a time of military action. And they enacted impeachment on the very day that their own legislative leader, House Speaker–designate Bob Livingston, fell prey to the puritanical zeal of right-wing Republicans in his own caucus. Livingston’s resignation allowed House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, in the only genuinely great speech delivered in Congress in years, to call for a halt not just to the sexual McCarthyism that the GOP has inflicted on the political culture, but to the larger cultural civil war of the ’60s that the right is hellbent on keeping alive.

It is the Republicans’ insistence on waging that war that remains the ultimate reason for last weekend’s impeachment. When Henry Hyde thinks about Bill Clinton, he told the L.A. Times in a remarkable admission, he thinks of sullying “the significance of military service,” and of “this idea that everything is relative.” Hyde has also repeatedly expressed his admiration for demonstrators who illegally obstruct access to abortion clinics. And now he has taken his politics of moral transcendence and imposed them on the one question where they should carry no weight at all — the right of a free people to select its own leaders, and to oust them only when a majority believes there’s a compelling case for doing so.

In the House debate last Saturday, however, some Republican members actually argued that democracy is not a transcendent value. Bob Inglis, an outgoing Judiciary Committee member from South Carolina, hauled in from the Bromide Museum the argument that the U.S. “is a republic, not a democracy,” a nation in which legislators should be utterly independent of popular sentiment — which is an accurate enough description of his home state through much of its history (South Carolina had more restrictions on the right to vote than any other state), but not a case that the GOP should want to make very loudly in the matter of removing a president. Most Republicans, I think, would take issue with Inglis — if not with the wisdom of his argument, at least with the wisdom of bringing it up — but Inglis’ argument is actually key to the legitimacy of their action. Only a factional leadership convinced that its power supersedes even the most fundamental expression of popular will could do what the Congress, last Saturday, did.

To borrow a line from my friend Johnny Angel, there’s a name for such people: Banana Republicans.

LA Weekly