Let Democrats Censure Clinton

by Patrick J. Buchanan – January 19, 1999

Given 24 hours to present their case, the House managers spoke in a hushed Senate chamber, for once uninterrupted by the aging student radicals of the Judiciary Committee and demagogic rants from the House floor. So it was that the strength and power of the case against the president was brought home.

Even Senate Democrats conceded by week’s end that, on the facts as presented, Bill Clinton lied under oath to corrupt a civil trial and perjured himself to a U.S. grand jury to cover up his felonies.

Yet, though they may seethe with rage at Clinton’s stupidity, Democratic senators still do not want one of their own to be the first president removed from office for criminal misconduct.

They will be looking for a way to give themselves cover while distancing themselves from Bill Clinton — to condemn him without removing him. Thus, if Clinton is acquitted by 34 liberal Democrats, his party will revive the censure option.

Republicans should seal off this escape hatch, so the Democrats are compelled to do their moral duty — either convict Clinton and remove him from office, or declare him innocent of all high crimes.

Censure would establish a dreadful precedent. Had it been an option, Harry Truman, at the nadir of his presidency in 1951, would have faced it for firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur. A censure resolution might have been cheered through the day the Old Soldier gave his immortal address to a joint session. Had the motion failed, Democrats loyal to Truman who voted it down would have lost even more seats in the 1952 Eisenhower landslide.

Richard Nixon would have been censured for firing Archie Cox in the “Saturday Night Massacre,” though, like Truman, he acted within his powers. Gerald Ford might have faced it for pardoning Nixon, a decision that torpedoed his popularity, though many now concede that Ford’s pardon was an act of high statesmanship.

After the Iran-Contra scandal broke, Ronald Reagan would probably have been censured by a jealous Congress, frustrated when Adm. John Poindexter exonerated Reagan and ended all hopes for a Nixon-style impeachment hearings in 1986.

But had that Democratic Congress censured Reagan, the GOP Congress of 1995 would have expunged the censure, as it went about renaming airports and buildings for the Gipper.

What would have been accomplished by censuring Reagan, other than provide one more symbolic issue to divide us? And if this Congress censures Clinton, some future Congress will surely vote to expunge it. Better to do nothing.

Do not pray too hard for something; you may just get it — so it is said. The establishment that is promoting censure should reflect on what it is advocating. If Congress can censure another branch of government, i.e., a president, it can censure the Supreme Court.

The day the court declared that burning the American flag was a protected form of political speech, a resolution to censure it would have rocketed through Congress. Roe vs. Wade and the court decision to outlaw prayer in the public school would have brought immediate censures or the defeat of many legislators who voted them down.

Censure is not forbidden by the Constitution, but it is outside it. By the Constitution, Congress has power to impeach and remove a president as a sanction against an abuse of office. In dealing with a renegade court, Congress has — though it has refused to use it — the constitutional power to restrict the court’s jurisdiction. These are the weapons the founding fathers gave to Congress. It ought to use them or do nothing. Censure is a cowardly compromise — an evasion of responsibility.

Unlike impeachment, censure is also a family affair. The House, not the Senate, reprimands, condemns or expels a Newt Gingrich, Barney Frank or Jim Wright. The Senate, not the House, disciplines a Joe McCarthy, Harrison Williams or Bob Packwood.

If Democrats wish to censure their leader, they have the power to do it in their own caucuses. But if they introduce a motion on the floor, Republicans should abstain. If Bill Clinton is to be censured by Congress, let the Democrats alone vote to condemn him.

Then, we shall see whether they are sincere in their professed disgust at Clinton’s conduct or if they are as cynical as those House members who, after begging for an opportunity to censure Clinton for disgraceful misconduct, boarded buses for a Rose Garden rally to cheer their imperfect but beloved leader.