When Attack Politics Backfired

by Patrick J. Buchanan – December 8, 1998

All who live by the sword perish by the sword. The warning of Matthew’s Gospel is our lesson for today.

No White House has ever been more devoted to, or adept at, attack politics than this one. When allegations were made about Bill Clinton’s private life in 1992, Gennifer Flowers and her sorority were savaged and silenced. When the Republican convention raised the cultural and character issues, the Clintonites instantly counterattacked, and the irresolute Republicans broke ranks and ran away.

Bill Clinton owes his White House to the War Room. But he may also owe his impeachment to the War Room mind-set.

What he and his men have never understood is that when the battle is won, magnanimity, not arrogance, is the way to consolidate victory. The vulgar war dance the Clintonites conducted in the end zone after the Democrats’ November victory has backfired.

After that election and the swift departure of Speaker Newt Gingrich, impeachment was thought to be dead. “Get it over with!” was the universal sentiment. Even Republicans convinced that the president had committed serious felonies abandoned hope that a GOP Congress, traumatized by the election, would vote to impeach.

Bill Clinton all but had it won.

A certain sign was the stampede of the opportunists. Liberal journalists who had been denouncing Clinton pirouetted overnight to attack his accusers for being obsessed with sex.

All Clinton had to do was to give demoralized Republicans a way back off the limb onto which they had crawled. Moderates were looking for a bridge off the island of impeachment. But rather than help construct that bridge, the White House decided to rub the Republicans’ noses in their defeat.

When Ken Starr appeared before Henry Hyde’s Judiciary Committee, Barney Frank, Maxine Waters & Co. went into their Chicago Seven, Days-of-Rage routine, disrupting the proceedings, reciting canned speeches and trashing Starr. David Kendall used his allotted hour to berate Starr and smear his investigation. Opinion polls showed that scheme backfired. The independent counsel, whose approval rating had been down almost in the teens, was thought by 67 percent of the nation to have given a fine presentation of the evidence against Clinton.

By the next day it dawned on America that no Democrat even contested Starr’s case or defended the president as innocent of the charges of perjury, obstruction of justice or abuse of power. Why the William Kunstler-style defense, if the president was not guilty?

A second White House opportunity came with the 81 questions submitted by Hyde. Rather than give Republican moderates grounds on which to stand and say, “The president did not tell the truth but is aware of it and has apologized. Let us censure him, do the public’s will, and move on,” the White House responses were contemptuous.

Unstated message of those replies — “You ignoramuses don’t deserve a reply; we have the votes to block impeachment, and you know it.” This not only enraged conservatives but affronted GOP moderates and Democrats who do not relish being treated as party hacks who will stomach any garbage the White House dishes up.

Clinton is now almost certain to be the third president impeached by the House Judiciary Committee, and he may be the second to face a Senate trial. And unlike Andrew Johnson, who was impeached for bravely carrying out Abraham Lincoln’s “with-malice-toward-none” policy toward the defeated South, an honorable cause, Clinton will have been impeached for felonies that disgrace anyone convicted of them.

Seems some folks just can’t stand prosperity. What is it about the Clintonites that they could not extend a handshake in victory, that they needed to mock those they had defeated?

This is, I think, a reflection of the hatred the left has for the right. They have called their opponents extremists, racists and fascists for so long they have come to believe those opponents are not entitled even to decency. This attitude has proven as destructive as it was stupid.

But now it is time for both parties to set aside partisanship. The first question is: Did the president perjure himself and obstruct justice in a trial in which he was the accused, and lie under oath to a U.S. grand jury? Thus far, almost none of Clinton’s supporters bothered to deny it.

So, the final questions are: Are these impeachable offenses? Or are these permissible perjuries, allowed to a president but not to you and me? Is Bill Clinton above the law? We shall see.