by Patrick J. Buchanan – January 5, 1999
In the weeks since the House voted to impeach Bill Clinton for high crimes, more than a few senators have been casting about for some way to evade their constitutional duty to conduct a trial.
Republicans have been shaken by the public reaction to the House vote. Some senators now look on a trial of Clinton like a truck bomb parked outside their caucus room that could blast them out of power in 2000 if not defused.
Senate Democrats want to get it over with. They know the president’s high approval ratings could go South overnight and do not relish being remembered as the Senate version of the O.J. jury that voted to acquit a president who repeatedly lied to a U.S. grand jury.
Both sides are angling for a plea bargain. “Censure,” say the Democrats. “Censure plus,” counter the nervous Republicans. But before Majority Leader Trent Lott buys into any deal, he should realize he is playing with nitroglycerin.
Here is the deal being offered: The House Republicans would summarize the evidence in one day; the White House would rebut the charges in the next; and then, a vote would be taken. If only 34 senators voted that the charges, even if proven, were insufficient to remove Clinton, the trial would be halted. Both sides would then go to work on censure.
What is wrong with this deal? From the standpoint of the Constitution — everything. The decision on whether to hold a trial of the president has already been taken by the House. That is what impeachment is. The Senate’s duty is to convict or acquit him, not to ratify or overrule the House vote.
If Lott buys into this deal, he will be handing over to 34 liberal Democrats the authority to declare that Dick Gephardt and Barney Frank were right, and Henry Hyde and Tom DeLay were wrong, and he will be granting them the power to reverse the courageous decision of the House. Why would Trent Lott transfer that power to Tom Daschle, Teddy Kennedy and Chuck Schumer?
The deal being offered is a capitulation. If accepted, it will be a repudiation of the House declaration that Bill Clinton is guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice and that his offenses are grave enough to remove him. The president would be able to argue that the Senate had found the House vote to be partisan, unfair and unjustified. The Senate would then be left to hash out a censure resolution that Clinton could dismiss as contemptuously as he did the House vote, when he held a Rose Garden rally after being impeached.
It is simply not credible for Senate Republicans to assert that their House colleagues took a courageous, correct decision in voting to try the president and then permit 34 liberal Democrats to deep-six the trial the House said should go forward.
If a GOP Senate hands Clinton a bad report card when a GOP House voted to prosecute him for felonies, the former may discover new meaning in the phrase “You Can’t Go Home Again.” If, acting from fear and self-interest, Senate Republicans abort this trial, they could start a battle inside the GOP that will call to mind the happy days of the Rockefeller-Goldwater race.
Today, impeachment appears to be hurting the GOP far more than Clinton. But the polls have fluctuated and will do so again. There is no telling how this will come out — another argument, if one were needed, for senators to vote their convictions. At least then, no matter the outcome, one can justify himself. When in doubt, it is best to follow one’s conscience and the Constitution.
The worst of all worlds for the Republicans would be to short-circuit this trial to end the party hemorrhaging, only to find that an even worse war of recriminations had been ignited in their own camp.
Let the Senate do its constitutional duty and conduct a full and fair trial of the president; and let each senator stand up and vote: guilty or innocent. If 34 vote to say that Clinton did not commit perjury or his perjuries are not grave enough to justify his removal, let them live with that decision. For that would be a verdict on the Democratic Party as well as on Bill Clinton.
As for censure, Republicans should vote no. It would create a dreadful precedent that would be used and abused.
Either Bill Clinton is guilty of high crimes, or he is not. If the Senate concludes he is not guilty, or his offenses are not grave, let him be acquitted, and let us move on. And if Democrats then wish to censure him, let them do so in their own party caucus, if they are sincere.
Drop the deal, Mr. Lott, and get on with the trial.