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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, impeachmenthas 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.
Make no mistake: Social Security does indeed face a grave threat — only, it is not the ticking demographic time bomb that the program’s critics assure us will blow the boomers’ retirement to smithereens. The real threat comes from the critics themselves, who are all but frothing to destroy the system in order to save it. Based on worst-case projections of national economic growth, they have announced that the system will go into the red 34 years from now. Based on best-case projections of stock performance over the same 34 years, they have argued that downsizing the program, so that everyone can redirect their wages into the market, will guarantee a national bonanza. How stocks can soar while the broader economy limps along — for a third of a century, no less — is a conundrum they don’t address.
But the architects of the many schemes for privatizing our most successful government program are not easily daunted. In recent years, establishment commissions and centrist senators galore have called for reducing the Social Security payroll tax and mandating workers to invest their wages in stocks or bonds — or Taliban oil, or British beef (high-risk, but correspondingly high-yield). To further reduce the collective obligation assumed by the state, they’ve also suggested raising the retirement age at which one can collect Social Security to 68 or 70 (a big favorite of construction and assembly-line workers, not to mention waitresses), and lowering its annual cost-of-living increases.
What you’d never know from Social Security’s critics — some of whom are funded by brokerage houses that will make out nicely if the law mandates the establishment of 140 million new private retirement accounts — is that the current system is the most effective anti-poverty program in America today, not only lifting tens of millions of senior citizens out of poverty but relieving tens of millions of their children from having to support them. What they don’t mention is that the current system is a huge stabilizer in the event of a economic downturn, a guarantor of continuing consumption. Whatthey neglect to report is that the cost of administering the current dinosaur of a system is 1 percent of all Social Security revenues, and that the cost of administering all those private accounts is sure to be many times that.
And what they always omit is that there are solutions for Social Security’s problems that don’t require dismantling the system, or keeping Grandma waiting tables for five more years. In a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, economist Dean Baker suggests that the system could be made sound for the next 75 years by implementing a revision of the Consumer Price Index, increasing the payroll tax by 0.02 percent to account for longer life expectancies, and raising the cap on payroll taxes to 90 percent of wages.
But progressive reforms such as those that Baker suggests are hardly going to win the support of the Republican Congress — although they’re quite likely to win favor with such core Democratic constituencies as labor and minorities. On December 3 — several years after the right began its steady drumbeat against continuing the current system — the AFL-CIO and other liberal organizations are unveiling a national campaign against privatizing Social Security. With the battle thus joined, only one crucial party remains to be heard from: Bill Clinton.
At first glance, you’d think the last thing Clinton would want to do would be to go against the Democratic base on an issue of immense magnitude, just weeks after that base turned out in numbers surpassing all expectation to deal the Republicans a decisive defeat at the polls. You’d think the last thing Clinton would do would be to cut a deal with the Republicans when every poll fairly screams that the public trusts the Democrats, not the Republicans, to modify the system in an equitable way.
Then again, Clinton has flouted core Democratic constituencies before — supporting NAFTA and the Republicans’ decimation of welfare. He has already conceded the right’s argument that the current system is fundamentally imperiled, though projections of budget surpluses far into the future have rendered this threat as much a matter of faith as of hard numbers. He has nodded attentively while champions of privatization have made their case, though these cases were made at town meetings that antedated the stock market’s wild summer gyrations.
In fact, I haven’t spoken with a single Washington insider committed to preserving a fully governmental Social Security system who is confident that Bill Clinton shares that sentiment. They think he understands the economic, social and political logic of preserving a universal system free from the vagaries of the market. But this is Bill Clinton, and they’re just not sure.
Which is where impeachment rides to the rescue. Nothing would so completely derail the bipartisan dismantling of Social Security than the Republicans’ putting Clinton on trial in the Senate; nothing would make it more difficult for Clinton to sell out his Democratic supporters. All in all, impeaching Bill Clinton seems a small price to pay for perpetuating the most successful Democratic program in the nation’s history.
Besides, if Clinton does move to privatize Social Security, he deserves to be impeached.
In the end, of course, the Republicanswill probably wuss out and decline to impeach the president. But Democrats can always hope.