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The Cultural Legacy of Impeach

November 29, 1998|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — When the Abbe Sieyes was asked what he had done during the French Revolution, he answered, "I survived." That's President Bill Clinton's legacy, too. He survived. 1998 will go down as the year when the country witnessed one of the greatest feats of political dexterity in U.S. history.

After all, the president didn't just lie under oath. He lied bald-faced to the American people when he said on Jan. 26, "I'm not going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." Pretty emphatic, huh? Well, seven months later, he finally told the truth: He did have something that might be construed as sexual relations with that woman, depending on the legal definition of "sexual," "relations" and "woman." Clinton survived because he has an uncanny instinct for understanding how the American public thinks and feels. He knew something nobody else in Washington knew: Americans understand the difference between private behavior and public performance. By defiantly continuing to do his job--remember his masterful State of the Union speech--Clinton could persuade people that none of this mattered.

What clinched the president's victory was the crazy decision by House Republican leaders to release independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report and the president's videotaped testimony, thinking the scandalous details were sure to finish the president off. What they did instead was confirm the suspicion that this was "just about sex" and, therefore, nobody's else's business. Not the independent counsel's business. Not Congress's. Not the press's. It was a colossal political blunder and ended up finishing off House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Now we're in the end game, and it's Republicans who are on the spot. The prevailing view among congressional Republicans is that the proper punishment would be impeachment but no conviction. That is, the House should vote to impeach Clinton, even if there's not the remotest chance that two-thirds of the Senate will vote to remove him from office.

What would be the point? In a word, disgrace. Impeachment would go down on Clinton's permanent record. He would be one of only two presidents to get impeached, even if he, like Andrew Johnson before him, managed to stay in office.

That's why an impeachment vote would be so traumatic. The term "impeach" has a deep emotional resonance with Americans, even if you explain to them that impeachment and removal from office are two different things. Which is exactly what last week's Gallup poll did. Interviewers told respondents, "As you may know, removing a president from office involves two major steps in Congress. First, the House of Representatives must vote on whether there is enough evidence to bring a president to trial before the Senate. This step is called 'impeachment.' Next, the Senate must vote on whether to remove the president from office or not."

People were asked, first, would you want your member of Congress to vote to impeach the president and send the case to the Senate for trial? The answer--64% to 33%, "no." Then the poll asked, if the House votes to impeach, would you want your senator to vote to convict the president and remove him from office? The answer--64% to 33%, "no." The public sees no difference between "impeachment" and "removal from office."

That's why House members are approaching the impeachment vote with so much caution. It's like voting to behead the king during the French Revolution. To vote "oui" is to be forever labeled a regicide. As the Abbe Sieyes was labeled after the trial of Louis XVI, at which he was called on to explain his position to the French convention. His speech: "Death. No discussion."

Senate Republicans are terrified the House will vote to impeach next month. That will force the Senate to put the president on trial, a process that could take up most of next year. Right now, it's likely that the House Judiciary Committee will approve at least one article of impeachment, for perjury, on a straight party-line vote. But Republicans appear to be a few votes shy of a majority if impeachment comes to a vote by the entire House.

If the impeachment vote fails, the president will escape with no penalty at all. That's an outcome even most Democrats would be unhappy with. So members from both parties are frantically trying to come up with a censure resolution that could command majority support. Like the one being proposed by Rep. Paul McHale (D-Pa.): Congress "does hereby censure and condemn" Clinton because he committed perjury, obstructed justice and "acted in a manner contrary to his trust as president."

If the censure statement is too weak, many Republicans will oppose it as meaningless. If it's too strong, a lot of Democrats will oppose it as going too far. The only thing Congress cannot do is impose any penalty on the president. That would violate the separation of powers. The Constitution allows for only one penalty: impeachment and removal from office.

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