Confession: I misjudged the House managers. I thought, briefly, that they had more than they did. I also misjudged the White House legal team. I expected victory on the law and the Constitution. I did not expect a persuasive defense on the facts. Well, to be fair, almost all the facts, and certainly enough of them to make the managers look like amateurs.
I’ll get over it. The end is near. The end is clear. And the end is wonderful. The Republic stands; the rule of law is surviving.
The Republican Party may not. And indeed, why should it? The postwar existence of the Republican Party, from Nixon to Reagan to people like Falwell and Lott, from Moral Rearmament to the Christian Coalition, was built on character assassinations and blacklists. With the end of Red scares, the targets merely shifted, to blacks, gays, immigrants. Welfare queens and Willie Horton. Gays in the military and James Hormel. The fence at the border.
But national attitudes have become more open and tolerant and wise, and this sort of thing isn’t working politically (a fact that George W. understands, and that Pete Wilson didn’t). This is something for which we have Bill Clinton, in part, to thank; inclusion has been the most eloquent trope of his Presidency. And that left only Clinton himself, and his sex life, to attack. Well, he has beat them, and now we all know what they are like.
Can the Republican party collapse? Don’t be surprised. Conservative parties have already collapsed in almost every democracy: in Canada, in Britain and Italy, in Germany and France. The Republicans lack leadership, programs, talent. For a generation, they will be remembered as the party of Henry Hyde. With the Cold War ended, who needs them?
Victory is sweet. Revenge should follow. The Senate will prevent a full airing of the sordid triangle between Kenneth Starr, the Jones lawyers, and Linda Tripp. But one can be sure that David Kendall – who alluded sharply to Tripp’s role in fabricating the obstruction count – has more information on this seamy nexus of master and spy. It should be released in full. Kenneth Starr should be fired – Janet Reno owes America that favor. Starr’s remaining targets, Susan McDougal, Julie Hiatt Steele, and Webster Hubbell, should be cleared or pardoned. In the name of decency Clinton can do this upon his own acquittal, and he should. (President George Bush set the precedent, let us remember.)
The trial has demonstrated the power of due process. We needed that. We needed to see that every defendant has the right to a fair trial and a good lawyer. This should not be less true for capital defendants in Texas, or for three-strikes shoplifters in California. There should now be a drive for adequate legal services, for adequate procedural safeguards and appellate review in death penalty cases, for basic fairness in sentencing, and for sanity in soft drug cases. And when Americans are asked to support new powers of snooping, new intrusions on the right of privacy and private communications shortly to be proposed in the name of counter-terrorism, let them ask: do I want a regiment of small-bore Starrs coming after me?
There are also constitutional issues to deal with. The Republicans have moved us quite close to parliamentary government in practice. Two changes made this possible: the Supreme Court decision exposing the President to perjury traps in the Jones case, and the independent counsel statute. Add in the Republican majority in the House, and impeachment happened. Only the two-thirds rule saved Clinton in the Senate.
This legacy creates an unstable situation for any future President facing a hostile Congress. There are two possible solutions. One is to move all the way to a parliamentary system. It might not be a bad solution, odd though it sounds. The other is to insulate the President from civil suits and independent counsels. Each course has its own dangers, and the second, being more conservative, is probably safer. But it is clear that we cannot leave institutional arrangements as they are.
So let’s deal with that. And then let’s move on. Clinton himself has morphed back into a Democrat, as the political dynamic of his position requires. He has presented a Social Security bill that does not cut benefits. He has called, once again, for a patient’s bill of rights and a rise in the minimum wage. He has called for increased spending on education. He is opposing a tax cut. And the truth is – the public likes this program. Progressives should press forward with it – progress is possible, if not in this Congress, then in the next.
Much can happen in two years. But for the moment, as the political earthquake that was Clinton’s trial takes hold in our imaginations, things are looking up. And how.
James K. Galbraith teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, U.T.—Austin. His most recent book is Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay.