What Will Not Happen to President Clinton
Note: This is for any interested parties during the Common Hour Presentation on "The Future of the Clinton Presidency" hosted by the Department of Political Science on 23 September 1998 at Crisp Auditorium. I regret that I cannot be personally present for this interesting event. Feel free to quote or use this document, but please be sure to attribute direct quotes or paraphrases to their author. Please feel free as well to write or email your thoughts to the author.
President Bill Clinton will be in office until 12:00 Noon, Eastern Standard Time, on 20 January 2001. He will not be subject to articles of impeachment voted by the U.S. House of Representatives. He will not be hauled into impeachment trial before the U.S. Senate with Chief Justice Rehnquist presiding. Unlike former President Richard Nixon he will not resign his office on the eve of conviction by the Senate. Barring unrelated death or permanent inability on Clintons part, Vice President Al Gore will not assume the presidential office anytime before 20 January 2001. President Clinton will limp toward that preordained end date of his second term. He will be the lamest of lame ducks, but still in command of a wide arsenal of prerogative powers. He will go into the history books for presiding with some political and rhetorical skill over an era of great prosperity and overall peace, but be noted most for inflicting an absurdly stupid self-inflicted injury upon himself and his immediate successors. His ultimate historical rating will be low because he left behind an office of lesser authority and standing than he inherited.
President Clinton will not resign because Kenneth Starr wont let him. The Office of Independent Counsels Referral to Congress submitted on 9 September 1998 makes it clear that the OIC under Starr would vigorously prosecute the former President on several criminal charges immediately after a transfer of power. Only a prearranged blanket pardon by President Gore for ex-President Clinton would avoid that, but Al Gore also wants to be an elected President. The surest possible way for a president-to-be to forfeit election of his own is to promise a pardon to his patron. Al Gore was in public life when President Gerald Ford issued such a pardon to former President Nixon on 9 September 1974, one month after the Nixon resignation. That event prompted the resignation of the new Presidents Press Secretary, brought an immediate end to his brief honeymoon with the public and Congress, saw Fords public trust and approval ratings take a precipitous dive, prompted creation of a cottage industry devoted to ferreting out evidence that Ford somehow reached an understanding with Nixon in advance of Fords succession to the presidency, and probably ensured Gerald Fords eventual election defeat in the 1976 presidential election. Gore as Vice-President was directly and personally selected by presidential nominee Bill Clinton in 1992, making his station almost identical to Fords as a hand-chosen potential successor to the sitting president. Ford was nominated by Richard Nixon in October 1973 under the provisions of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew. Hand-picked potential successors fall under automatic suspicion within a Congress controlled by an opposition party majority. The suspicion extends beyond them to the press and the public. Ever since 1968 when hand-picking became standard for selecting Vice-Presidents, they have also become powerful figures in the inner circle counseling and policy implementation of the White House. As with former Vice-President George Bushs involvement in the Iran-contra scandal under President Reagan in 1986, there is ground for suspicion of coverup and denial in the next administration of sins committed in its precursor. No rational politician in any expected utility model of succession will promise enough lenience to persuade a sitting President to resign and then face an Independent Counsel attack alone should a pardon not be issued.
Since its so clear that Bill Clinton cannot resign, why are so many congressional Democrats wishing and saying he will? Thats very simple. Put it down first to heartfelt wishful thinking. Put it next to looming elections. House Democrats are currently far more interested in Clinton leaving than are Senators. In this fall 1998 on eve of the November 3 midterm election, his misfortune is his own personal doing, but he does not face voters. All House Democrats do. So do one of three among the 45 Senate Democrats. Those fifteen will distance themselves physically, rhetorically and psychically from Clinton far more than the other thirty. Among House Democrats the only vocal defending group now is in the Congressional Black Caucus. Its not just that these are loyal core Democrats. Its also that they all hail from safe-seat Democratic districts with only nominal GOP opponents. Raw courage is not a common commodity among elected politicians. Most Democrats, especially in the South and border-states with high numbers of culturally conservative voters, are less courageous than safe-seat holders in one-party districts.
To do comparative politics for a moment, consider the effects of switching systems with our mother country. Great Britain has occasionally seen a parliamentary crisis in which the Prime Minister or high Cabinet officials put the ruling party in an untenable position. In the Profumo scandal of 1963, the MacMillan government actually fell from power after sexual revelations of its Defence Minister were preceded by proven lies designed to cover his personal embarrassment over entanglements with a professional sex worker. Sound a bit familiar? Had Prime Minister MacMillan found the truth and sacked Profumo immediately before the public lies, the Government might have survived. In 1990 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ran afoul of her public--on tax policy grounds, not personal ones. The ruling Conservative Party correctly judged that she would never budge her taxation position no matter how people reacted (she being an imperious sort, and eleven years as P.M. at that). They summarily sacked her, made John Major the new party leader, and enjoyed another seven years in power.
If and only if the U.S. had a system with such party control over its leader, the Common Hour event of September 23 would not be "The Future of the Clinton Presidency." It would be "A Retrospective on the Clinton Presidency" or perhaps "Al Gore as President: What Now?" Bill Clinton would have made no August 17 apology because he would be sacked by his own party. The revelations of the Starr Report or its equivalent, which include the sexual relationship with a former White House intern and rather forlorn efforts to find her a job, would bring the inevitable end anyway. The knifing would be done not by enemies but by friends and party colleagues, but equally final.
But back to reality. There is no procedure here for performing the dirty work as the British do. This being the nonparliamentary U.S., and the misguided independent counsel law still firmly in place, there exists only one provision to reclaim the presidency from a misbehaving incumbent. That is the special preserve of impeachment.
Since Bill Clinton will not resign or be sacked by his party, his removal means he must be impeached by the Republican-run Congress. Some of the more publicity-hungry GOP legislators have loudly called for this. Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri is among their number. It will never happen. Its actually the last possible thing the Senator wants to see. Suppose the current House in the 105th Congress moves quickly, reports impeachment articles from its partisan-driven Judiciary Committee, and votes them through on the floor. The new Senate to be chosen this November 3 then convenes on 3 January 1999 to start the 106th Congress. First order of business is an impeachment trial of the sitting President. The President also carries the annual responsibility of delivering a policy-laden State of the Union speech each January to the assembled government and a national television audience. So the Senate puts off final unpleasantries until February, and then quickly convicts and ousts the President.
Two things happen now. Vice-President Al Gore automatically becomes President. Under terms of the term-limiting 22nd Amendment, an interim President may sit up to two years and still be eligible for two four-year elective terms of his or her own. Anything beyond two years restricts the interim President to a single term. So President Gore potentially has two-term or ten-year status, courtesy of the Senate waiting till after 20 January 1999 to convict and replace Clinton.
And then President Gore selects a new Vice-President, subject to confirmation review in House and Senate with simple majorities required in each to confirm. Gore looks at the Republican ranks of the 106th Congress and selects either a centrist Senator who has criticized Clinton (say, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska) or a major figure not currently in office (say, former Senators Bill Bradley, or Sam Nunn). Both then steam through the year 2000 as a personally upright team, united in purpose of keeping the presidency and denying it to the junior Senator from Missouri.
The junior Senators chief appeal to voters is that he has a personally upstanding monogamous married life, and is therefore specially qualified to be Chief Executive as a moral right thinker. This might work well enough should the sitting President still be a forlorn and graying Bill Clinton. It works considerably less well against Al Gore, Bob Kerrey, Bill Bradley, or Sam Nunn. Here lies the inherent hypocrisy so evident in much of American election-driven politics. No one has more reason to call insistently for Clintons impeachment than Senator Ashcroft, who genuinely is revolted by the Presidents personal behavior and hopes to become President by linking to a core activist coalition of like thinkers. But no one needs or wants Bill Clinton still in office in the year 2000 more than John Ashcroft does.
Its a little like the Republican congressional candidates calling for term limitations after they began enjoying their new majority status in 1995. We want the issue, we know it helped bring us to power, we owe it to supporters to rhetorically honor it--but for Gods sake, dont actually do it! Wont someone save us from ourselves? Thats essentially what congressional leaderships are hired to do. And thats what they will do on whether to actually impeach and convict this President. The Republican leaderships will rescue their party from carrying out the demands of its own most vocal moralists.
Partisan leadership of Congress provides yet another persuasive reason to seriously doubt the Congress can successfully bring about impeachment. Granted, our single major precedent suggests otherwise. The vivid 1973-74 deliberations of the 93rd Congress successfully brought former President Nixon to resignation on 8 August 1974, approximately 16 months after the first April 1973 revelations of White House involvement in the Watergate breakin and coverup. But that precedent is deeply misleading for the Clinton and 105th/106th Congress context of 1998-99. One clear result of the House Judiciary Committee articles of impeachment on Nixon was that bipartisan consensus emerged that the President had committed several impeachable offenses which all involved the serious misuse of governmental powers to suppress or silence the truth about the June 1972 Watergate breakin at Democratic National Committee headquarters. Bipartisan consensus is indispensable to using impeachment in the post-1968 American context, which has seen unified partisan control of White House and Congress in only six of the past 29 years. So what is the likelihood of bipartisan consensus against President Clinton in 1998 or 1999?
That likelihood is near-zero. The 104th Congress elected in 1994 was easily the single most partisan Congress of postwar America. One must scour early-1900s records to find comparably partisan division in the voting or personal records of a Congress. The 105th is only slightly less partisan than the 104th. The 106th, to be elected this November 3, is likely to show no abatement of partisanship. The personal animosity across the aisle in Congress is obvious even to casual observers. Recurrent outings of Republican lawmakers for their own past or current sexual indiscretions will not foster a climate of forgiveness or collegiality. Within the House of Representatives, one committee stands out as the most partisan of all. That is the House Judiciary Committee, stocked on each side with ideological defenders of sharply opposed faiths. This Committee must take the lead in producing articles of impeachment. They probably will, but keep an eye on the partisan vote. If unlike 1974 the vote is strictly along partisan lines with Democrats opposed, the case for impeachment is already lost.
Where will this leave us? We will have another dismal year of the Independent Counsel futilely pursuing linkages between coverup of a sexual affair with coverups of corrupt bargains on Arkansas land speculation. If lucky the 106th Congress will meanwhile kill the independent counsel law at its regular renew-or-terminate date in 1999. We will have a weakened presidency, still intact but shorn of most of its authority to speak to American ideals and principles. Republicans will keep control of Congress and seek a return to unified government. Moral majoritarians will leap into the Republican primary season to promote the idea that character leadership requires proof of personal sexual probity. One of them will be nominated by the Republicans in a convention which permits Patrick Buchanan to sound a second call for a cultural war in America. A few of the more judicious types in the GOP will meanwhile caution that damage to President Clinton will weigh against the next President as well. Same for the country. And they will be right.
Note on Sources: Webwise readership will find an excellent compendium of source materials on impeachment procedures in general, and specific documents on the current Clinton predicament, at the University of North Texas site entitled "The Independent Counsel and Impeachment: Information at UNT and on the Internet" located at this URL: