Clinton's collision with history

Impeachment vote divides politicians - and public - in ways that could affect the country for years.

The House of Representatives is on the verge of impeaching President Clinton in a manner that could propel the nation's political culture to a new level of coarseness and strain government for years to come.

The nation will survive. Eventually, calm will return to Washington. But the fact that such sentiments bear repeating shows how serious the situation has become.

In some ways, it's worse than Watergate. Determining President Nixon's fate was easy, in the end. Lawmakers from both parties, appalled at evidence of his attacks on civil liberties, reached a consensus that he had to go. The public supported it.

But the matter of Monica Lewinsky, Mr. Clinton, and his attempt to conceal their relationship is a difficult one. The president has committed offenses that reasonable people could find impeachable - or not. The House Republican leadership has pursued charges in ways reasonable people could find nakedly partisan - or courageous.

Neither side credits the other's motives or logic. All the central characters in the case appear diminished. Most of the public is just tired of the shouting and wants the whole thing to go away.

The gravest danger is that when the impeachment vote is over, no matter how it ends, a significant percentage of lawmakers and voters will view the result as not just wrong, but flawed and illegitimate.

The whole thing began with the president's behavior high-risk behavior.

If Clinton had not pursued a sexual relationship with a woman barely older than his daughter, he could be safely planning his presidential library and post-White House occupations. Considering that many in the White House and Congress were predisposed to judge him a philanderer, what he did was reckless in the extreme.

Since then, he has been living in "Lawyerland", as one editorial puts it.

In fact, his steadfast refusal to say he lied has some legal logic behind it. The law of perjury is complicated and weighs intent, literal meaning, and materiality. In front of a jury in Washington federal court, one of the most liberal jurisdictions in the nation, Clinton would have a chance to beat the perjury rap.

But he's not in front of a D.C. jury. He's in front of Congress, and most House Republicans, plus a few Democrats, judge him guilty, guilty, guilty. The evidence, on perjury at least, is certainly strong, and by defending himself on narrow legal grounds, the president has set himself up for charges that his actions are an attack on the legal system itself.

Is that impeachable? There's the partisan divide. The rancor of the House Judiciary Committee proceedings left little time for crucial discussion of such questions as, is perjury perjury, end of story? Or is perjury about some things different from perjury about others, when a president's political fate is involved?

Reasonable people can differ on these questions.

GOP missteps

Then there are the Republican missteps. Two in particular have dismayed even some conservative foes of the president.

First, in winding up the House Judiciary Committee proceedings, chief investigator David Schippers intimated that he had evidence of other criminal wrongdoing by the president without saying what it was. In essence, he seemed to feel it necessary to bolster the thorough facts of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's referral on the Lewinsky matter with innuendo about other things.

Second, soon-to-be-House Speaker Robert Livingston said he would not allow a vote on censuring the president to come to the floor. Such a resolution would be unconstitutional, he said. That's open to question. Two reports from the Congressional Research Service say it would be constitutional. Congress has censured presidents, as well as other political figures, in the past.

The logical conclusion is that Livingston is holding censure back because he fears it would pass and impeachment wouldn't.

Is that a proper way to behave on such a momentous vote? Reasonable people can differ.

National Journal editor Michael Kelly has long been an articulate voice calling for the president's impeachment. Yesterday he said the only thing worse than Clinton getting off would be if the public was convinced he was the victim of a politically inspired miscarriage of justice.

"This result is something the brilliant leaders of the House seem determined to effect," he wrote.

Thus the seeds are sown for another harvest of retribution. On the surface, the business of Washington may look much the same after Clinton's future is settled. The White House and Congress will clash over budgets. Everyone will worry about a Middle East peace process, which is stalled.

Polarization of politics

But the language and tactics of politics are indisputably rougher than they were a decade ago. Many things have contributed to this, from increasing polarization in the parties to the decline in the number of competitive districts.

But such events as the Newt Gingrich-led ouster of then-House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas, and the Democratic pursuit of the Iran-contra investigation, have had their effect, too. They have helped make politicians afraid that the other fellow is a step away from attacking their good name. This results in preemptive strikes.

To most people, Clinton's actions shouldn't be minimized. He deserves some kind of punishment. Reasonable people from both parties should be able to agree on what to do.

The question is: Where are they?

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