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October 22, 2019

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Opinion:

What the Clinton precedent means today

I came of age as a conservative in an era when Republicans were keen on matters of private virtue and public probity. Then Bill Clinton became president, and his behavior exemplified neither.

In 1998, he was impeached by a partisan GOP House. But he survived the drama — and could have easily been re-elected to a third term absent the 22nd Amendment — for three reasons. His opponents overreached. The country was doing fine. And his supporters could be remarkably creative or brazen (when they weren’t simply mute) in excusing behavior they would never have tolerated from a Republican.

It’s hard not to think of that episode now that the shoe is on the other foot.

First, about the overreach: In 1998, Republicans didn’t merely oppose Clinton and his policies. They hated him, every bit as much as Democrats hate President Donald Trump. Right-wing radio was then about as influential as left-wing Twitter is today, and it generated the same kind of visceral and obsessive passion.

Clinton hatred played itself out in the interminable Whitewater investigation, which uncovered some wrongdoing and questionable dealings while inuring much of the country to murky presidential scandals. Think of it as the forerunner to the Mueller inquest.

But then came the Monica Lewinsky revelation, along with Clinton’s perjurious denials, semantic prevarications, shame-faced admission and shameful abuse of his foreign-policy powers for the sake of political gain. (Remember the U.S. attack on that pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, destroyed on the basis of dodgy intelligence just days after the Lewinsky admission?)

Suddenly, Republicans believed — as Democrats do now — that they had uncovered a scandal Americans could understand. Even the president admitted the behavior! What could be more obvious?

But while a majority of Americans understood — and deplored — the crime, they dissented on the question of punishment. They did not want to see the results of a democratic election overturned on a party-line vote out of partisan vendetta. They knew the character of the man they had elected as president, and had made their peace with his flaws. And they found those flaws far less objectionable than the zealotry with which Republicans were trying to get their man.

I was for impeachment at the time. What a misjudgment that turned out to be.

It was also a misjudgment of the nation’s mood. The dominant Republican view of the U.S. at the time (like the dominant Democratic view of today) was that the country was in pretty bad shape. Jack Kemp warned that the economy was underperforming. Bob Bork wrote that we were “Slouching Toward Gomorrah.” Many conservatives believed that our streets would soon be overwhelmed by a new class of criminals — “superpredators” — who would render urban life unlivable.

Reality was otherwise. The 1990s were the 20th century’s second Belle Époque. The economy flourished; nearly every social indicator, from unemployment to teenage pregnancy to violent crime, improved. The reasons for all this are many and contestable. But the point here is that conservatives were slow to see it, in part because they were blinded by their hatred of Clinton.

Today, the U.S. unemployment rate is 3.5%, the lowest it’s been in 50 years, and consumer sentiment remains high. Yes, there are indicators of a slowdown and many signs of social decline. But unless those numbers change sharply for the worse in the next year (as they did for Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal), Americans are unlikely to unite in a vengeful mood against the president who presides over them.

Finally, there’s the lockstep, hypocritical, partisan support for the president. In 1998, at least a few Democrats — notably Joe Lieberman, Bob Kerrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan — rose to denounce Clinton’s behavior, even if they didn’t support impeachment. More typical were voices like that of Gloria Steinem, who defended the president in terms that would later sit awkwardly with the standards of the MeToo movement, to say the least.

As with liberals and Clinton, so with conservatives and Trump: Their ethics have turned out to be purely situational. As a matter of immediate partisan interest, this is also likely to help the president.

But it won’t help the country, or the long-term interests of the party, much as the Democrats’ defense of Clinton didn’t help them. Republican legislators needn’t embrace the remedy of impeachment in order to denounce the president’s repellent and dangerous behavior. A moral scale of judgment lies between “high crimes and misdemeanors” and the current pathetic GOP dodge of “Trump-is-gonna-do-what-Trump-is-gonna-do.”

On that scale lies a vote censure by Congress. Or a credible primary challenge to Trump. Or even a clarion speech from a Republican leader who hasn’t yet lost a sense of honor and duty, and who can explain that a president who cavalierly invites foreign tyrants to investigate his political opponents debases his office and sets a precedent that all Americans, liberals and conservatives alike, will bitterly rue.

Mitt Romney, the moment could yet be yours.

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.