Democrats scramble to keep scandal from consuming party

September 10, 1998|By George F. Will

CHICAGO -- The dynamic of the Clintons' scandals is driving Democrats to draw swords against President Clinton, and to throw away the scabbards. He is a president of their making who has become deeply injurious to their country and potentially ruinous to their party. So last Sunday, the Democrat who has -- by virtue of political seniority, constitutional thoughtfulness and national security experience -- the most standing to speak, crisply spoke.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, said "get on with it." The antecedent of the pronoun was "an impeachment proceeding."

Impeachment, which receives six mentions in the Constitution, is not, as is carelessly said in the hyperbole of journalistic melodrama, a "constitutional crisis." It is, like elections themselves, a procedure put in the Constitution because the Framers thought it would be needed. Impeachment of a president is what Mr. Moynihan calls a "crisis of the regime," not a crisis of the constitutional order that provides for impeachments.

Mr. Moynihan said impeachments are not limited to "legal issues," meaning infractions of the law. (He did say perjury in a civil case, as well as to a grand jury, by the chief executive, is ground for impeachment.) Beyond legalities, he said, "there are moral issues which are also relevant."

The articles of impeachment of Richard Nixon included the charge that he had made "false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States." Such behavior, Mr. Moynihan said Sunday, "is an impeachable offense."

A coarsener of the culture

Sen. Joseph Lieberman's flaying of the first pornographic president was particularly stinging because it was a seamless extension of Mr. Lieberman's excoriations of Hollywood, the music industry and other polluters of popular culture. As a coarsener of the culture, Mr. Clinton's presidency matters more than the scabrousness of 2 Live Crew.

Mr. Lieberman cast Mr. Clinton as injurious to children. Mr. Clinton (like his wife, who believes "it takes a village," the government and herself to raise our children) constantly invokes the vulnerabilities of children to justify paternalistic government (e.g., the tobacco bill) that infantilizes the nation. Thus Mr. Clinton's, and liberalism's, calculating sentimentality about "kids" comes back to bite him.

Mr. Clinton relishes the peculiar intimacy of the modern presidency. A technology (television) and an idea (that therapeutic government requires a Therapist-in-Chief) have given rise to a watery Caesarism, the notion that presidents are our pals. They are in our living rooms, feeling our pain and confessing their preferences in underwear styles. In this context, presidents can be incompetent or wicked but they dare not become embarrassments, wearing out their welcomes, as Mr. Clinton has done, in the nation's living rooms.

Mr. Lieberman says that presidential duties include "the stewardship of our values." As that crusty realist, John Adams, said, "There never was yet a people who must not have somebody or something to represent the dignity of the state -- a doge, an avoyer, an archon, a president, a consul, a syndic." This may represent the protracted infancy of mankind, something that will eventually be outgrown, but it is fateful for Mr. Clinton.

A contract with the people

Thus Mr. Moynihan, asked if there is an implicit moral turpitude clause in the contract presidents have with the people, said "that implicit contract has evolved over the life of the presidency. The president was not meant to be the pre-eminent person that the 20th century has produced, but he is."

The fate of a party is tethered to an incumbent president, and Mr. Clinton is undoing the Democrats' arduous 30-year climb back from perception of strangeness. Remember the turmoil of the 1968 convention, "acid, amnesty and abortion," "San Francisco Democrats," support for furloughs for murderers and opposition to the Pledge of Allegiance? Now Democrats are represented by a man who represents the doctrine of permissible perjuries, innocuous lies and oral sex in the workplace.

No wonder Mr. Clinton is so crippled he no longer can do that which he does with most zest and skill -- raise money. Maryland's Democratic Governor, Parris Glendening, facing a tight re-election campaign, canceled a Clinton fund-raiser. Furthermore, Mr. Clinton is, in a sense, being protected by his scandals, which distract attention from the disintegration of U.S. interests -- from Russia to Kosovo to Iraq to North Korea -- as a result of feckless policies that periodically leaven his inattention.

Mr. Moynihan was asked if Mr. Clinton might be saved by some ceremony of contrition akin to Henry II's scourging after he instigated the murder of Becket, or Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow outside the residence of Pope Gregory VII. Mr. Moynihan replied, "That's another age of the absolute monarchies. We have a Constitution. Let's live by it."

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/10/98

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