The aftermath of impeachment mess has inspired handwringing and rhetorical gibberish on all sides, but precious little insight. What follows are two commentaries that rise above the rest, the first written for the The Weekly Standard, and the other written exclusively for mises.org.
The Weekly Standard
February 22, 1999
Think of the impeachment acquittal as the Dreyfus conviction: Deceit at the highest levels. A verdict that ignores the facts. A verdict rationalized because a revered institution must be protected. Popular approval of the verdict. A disdained minority protesting it.
After Dreyfus's conviction there followed the unraveling of the lies, a slow reversal of public opinion, the overturning of the verdict, vindication for Dreyfus, and disgrace for his accusers.
Some mirror image of this—the acquittal condemned and the accusers vindicated—seems inevitable in the Clinton case. The accounts of the Clinton White House that have already been published by sympathetic observers portray an immature, frighteningly incomplete person in the presidency. In this tell-all age, the rest of the story will be on the public record within a few years after Clinton leaves office, and it seems likely to be comprehensively dismaying.
But the greater parallel with the Dreyfus case is this: Dreyfus the man was a trivial part of what history has come to call the Dreyfus affair, and Bill Clinton the man will be a trivial part of the Clinton affair.
From history's perspective, I suspect his presidency and the impeachment will be recalled as the turning of some social or political tide for which he is an emblem.
Here is my candidate:
Independently of Clinton, a case can be made that the national government has been losing legitimacy. It is a complicated case, but can be exemplified by the answers to a single polling question asked consistently since 1958: "How much do vou think vou can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?" In 1958, three out of four Americans said most or all of the time. In the 1990s, that figure is one out of four. This is not a negligible downturn on a minor polling topic. It is the rumbling that portends a constitutional earthquake.
In the short term, the Clinton affair has increased public alienation by demonizing the independent prosecutor and Congress. In the long term, the Clinton affair is corrosive of other institutional foundations. There is the despoiling of the White House—Clinton serviced in the Oval Office while talking over the phone about Bosnia; the Lincoln bedroom sold for $100,000 a night.
These are images that demean the presidency more harshly than we have yet understood. There is the courtroom oath unmasked. Before the Clinton affair, who among us—except the lawyers—knew how empty is the requirement to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"? Now we all do, a costly disillusionment in a system that works only if people take those words seriously. Perhaps most painful, there is the transparent posturing about the Constitution. Everyone knows the truth: Clinton was acquitted because he got a thumbs up from the populace, Constitution be damned. Same charges, same evidence, but thumbs down from the populace, and he would have been thrown out, Constitution be damned. It is popular democracy, which the Founders rightly feared, come to pass through polls and focus groups.
And these are just a few fragments that are already obvious. In a hundred other ways we cannot foresee, the Clinton affair will be "See-I-told-you-so" proof that the government is for sale, politicians are contemptible, the law plays favorites—in short, that the system is corrupt. If it were an isolated aberration, the Clinton affair would amount to a new Teapot Dome and presidential girlfriend in the closet—Bill Clinton as Warren Harding with a high IQ. But instead the Clinton affair comes after decades in which the Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court have had their constitutional frameworks continually eaten away.
The Dreyfus affair labels a defining moment that exposed the rot in the institutions of the French right. The Clinton affair and its aftermath will, I think, turn out to be a defining moment that exposed the rot in the institutions of American republican government. Whether the response will be to shore up the structure or abandon it remains an open question.
The Lesson of the Impeachment
by Don Mathews
Now that the Clinton impeachment episode is over, beltway pundits are all over the place telling us what the whole thing meant. Well, beltway pundits aren't getting it right. If there's anything we ought to have learned from the impeachment and trial of Bill Clinton, it is that the best government is one that leaves the rest of us alone.
A lot of people seem to think that unless Washington politicians "attend to the business of the American people," the country will fall to pieces. But for the past year, politicians were unable to attend to any of the business of the American people. They were paralyzed by the scandal.
The president spent the year huddling with lawyers and trying to figure out how to apologize and look contrite. Congress sat waiting for the president's poll numbers to collapse and passed so little legislation that it earned the nickname "the do-nothing congress." And for a time, even the Supreme Court was caught up in the scandal, with the Chief Justice presiding over a trial in the Senate.
It's a dream come true: All three branches of government tied up in knots investigating each other.
Did the country fall to pieces? No, the country did fine. The economy grew, welfare rolls shrank, crime rates fell, and a pile of other social indicators moved in the direction we would want them to move.
Not at all. It was not luck or coincidence that the country had a great year in 1998 even though politicians were distracted from attending to the business of the American people. Perhaps the country had a great year in 1998 precisely because politicians were distracted from attending to the business of the American people.
If there were a way to repeat this event again and again, year after year, shouldn't it be done?
What else did we learn? The impeachment process revealed that politics is not about the faithful execution of laws or the deliberation of the public good. No, it was an ugly business, full of hypocrisy, partisanship and mendacity. Most lawmakers acted purely out of political self-interest, not high principle.
But do politicians attend to the "business of the American people" any differently than they attended to the impeachment episode? Are politicians any less hypocritical, partisan or mendacious when they tend to social security, education, foreign policy, or any other matter? Do they cast aside political self-interest when they attend to health care reform, farm programs, or funding for scientific research?
Government is politics. There's no separating the two. Thinking that government shouldn't be so political is like thinking water shouldn't be so wet.
The impeachment episode revealed the standard operating procedure of government, which is not concern for the common good but lies and hypocrisy, partisanship and mendacity, compromises and payoffs, and it was dominated by pure political self-interest. Whatever Congress and the White House touch is sucked into the same system.
If the country was fine without being attended on by Washington in any new ways, think how much better off we would be if government's attentions were permanent scaled down, and drastically so. Imagine how much more de-politicized, and thereby peaceful and prosperous, society would be.
Recognizing the limitations of politics and government is not a reason for dejection or frustration. It is a reason for erecting a wall of separation between government and the rest of us. If the impeachment follies increases the likelihood that more people will want nothing to do with the entire beltway crowd, it's been all to the good.