After the Vote, the Vengeance


"The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: When he meeteth him, he shall slay him." –Numbers 35:19

So they pulled the trigger. A few weeks ago, I said that the impeachment process was soon to end in censure or collapse. Wishful thinking, I guess. It seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that the punishment is disproportionate to the crime and recklessly dismissive of the public's reasonable desire to get on with life. But Congress, in its majesty, disagreed.

Let me, then, put aside the question of proportionality. That there was a case for impeachment is beyond question. Given President Clinton's lies, and his lies about his lies, and the compelling (though not watertight) case that he committed perjury, no one can reasonably say that impeachment was never a legitimate option.

How impeachment is done, though, matters just as much as whether it is done. In his column next door, Stuart Taylor Jr. asks you to take seriously the possibility that the Senate might convict Clinton. In this column, I ask you to take seriously the possibility that impeachment, the Constitution's ultimate anti-presidential weapon, has now entered the arsenal of routine politics.

Maybe not, of course. Given my last prediction, I wouldn't ask you to bet too much on this one. Ask around Washington, and one prominent view you hear expressed is that Clinton's impeachment is a special case. After all, the President was not merely disliked and resented by the Republicans; he was nailed by an independent counsel who found compelling evidence of serious wrongdoing. In the future: no evidence of serious wrongdoing, no impeachment. Or, maybe: no independent counsel, no impeachment (after next year, when the law expires, there may be no more independent counsels). Lord knows, it is hard to imagine anyone, even the most rabid Democrat, being eager to repeat this year's nightmare.

And yet. For all its New Testament rhetoric, Washington is an Old Testament city. It is a city which holds, with Beowulf, that it is better to avenge a friend than mourn him. The only rule of conduct is, "Do not unto me, for I will in return do worse unto you." Time and again, barriers of decorum and convention that have been breached by one party have been breached again, and then leveled, by the other.

In 1987, liberals decide to demolish the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. In short order, "Borking" becomes a verb, and in 1998 it is understood that controversial–and therefore interesting–jurists will not serve on the Supreme Court. In 1989, when Democrats control the House, Newt Gingrich, the minority whip, mounts a relentless attack on the Democratic Speaker, Jim Wright. In the fullness of time, when Republicans take control of the House, David Bonior, the minority whip, mounts a relentless attack on the Republican Speaker, Newt Gingrich. "The third-highest position in the country–this person ought to be a model," Bonior told The Washington Post in 1995. "He ought not to be a person who is skirting the law, avoiding the law, trampling on the law." Hmm.

In 1992, an independent counsel is appointed to investigate possible abuse of passport files by the Bush Administration; a few years later, an independent counsel investigates, among other things, the possible abuse of FBI files by the Clinton Administration. A Republican friend earnestly tells me that, although Kenneth Starr's investigation of Bill Clinton went overboard, it was an apt comeuppance for Lawrence Walsh's equally overboard Iran-Contra investigation. There were seven independent-counsel investigations under President Reagan and there have been seven under President Clinton, a statistic that may reflect a remarkable constancy of wrongdoing or a certain symmetry in the parties' demands for blood.

With all of that in mind, a thought experiment. I believe that most Republicans voting to impeach Clinton did so on grounds of principle. I question their judgment, but not their sincerity. Nonetheless, imagine, for a moment, that some other majority party in Congress set out, deliberately and cynically, to use impeachment to humiliate and cripple an opposing-party President who had bested them politically. Call this the Revenge Party. If the Revenge Party decided to do with impeachment what skinheads do with baseball bats, how might it proceed?

Begin, right at the beginning, by releasing as much damaging and embarrassing material as possible, as quickly as possible. Then, perhaps, make a deliberate choice to shut out the President's party, rejecting flatly an offer by that party to join in an impeachment investigation on reasonable terms. The Revengers' Judiciary Committee might then proceed with its inquiry in a way that made clear that few minds, if any, were open, and with the chairman making no secret of the outcome he intends. The committee might then bring this work to fruition with a party-line vote approving impeachment.

What if an election deprived the Revengers of several House seats, reducing their prospective majority to a sliver? Rather than allowing a new Congress to be seated, the Revengers might hurry to do the job as lame ducks, while they had the votes. What if public opinion, in full cognizance of the President's misdeeds, said impeachment is unwarranted? Ah, but the next election is two years away. The people will have forgotten by then.

The vote looks close; what to do? Allow a vote of conscience on several reasonable options, including the one preferred by the President's party? No, let the leadership declare that no milder alternative than impeachment should come to a vote, the better to corral waverers. To lead this full-court press, a good choice might be a fierce partisan known as "The Hammer," and described (in The Post) as "the President's self- proclaimed archenemy"–someone, perhaps, not unlike the House Republicans' whip, Tom DeLay. And then, in the end, comes the impeachment of the President, on nearly straight party lines.

Honestly, I don't believe that the Republican Party is the Revenge Party. I believe the Republicans' motives were more high than low. But here is the really interesting question. In any important particular, was the real-world Republicans' high-minded impeachment objectively distinguishable from the Revengers' low-minded impeachment?

The answer is no. And, given that there is no objective difference, will the Democrats ever believe that the Republicans were not out to get Clinton? No, again. "It will set in motion strong temptations among Democrats who consider their party victimized," Jim Wright told me in an interview. "Aside from the question of the impeachment per se, I think it sets up a thirst for revenge which is extremely unfortunate."

If a Republican President is in the White House, and if Democrats should gain control of Congress, might they work themselves into a lather at the first sign of presidential misdeed? Might they bay for impeachment? Imagine that President George W. Bush were found to have lied in his campaign, though not under oath, about prior drug use–wouldn't this cover-up of a serious crime show that he lacks the character to govern? Or imagine George W. were found to have broken some technical campaign-finance law (not that this could ever happen in American politics); wouldn't his arrogant flouting of campaign rules show contempt for the rule of law?

Anyway, as the Democratic Revengers may recall from December 1998, they don't need to convict the President. Why, impeachment without conviction is a mere rebuke, is it not? It is "censure-plus," the "plus" being an exquisite torture of the President. What could be better? Tally-ho!

The Founders, it seems safe to say, did not envision impeachment as a political superweapon. To use it that way would give Congress more leverage over the executive than is good for either branch. To prevent abuse, there ought to be a convention, starting today, that impeachment should never happen without a majority, or at least near-majority, of both parties. Bipartisanship is the only real guarantee that impeachment will not become another of Washington's barbarous team sports. If a President's offenses are serious enough to generate a fairly broad social consensus that he should go, then that consensus will eventually form even over the squawking of the President's mindless partisans. Ask President Nixon.

But perhaps it is too late for that now. Perhaps the glass is shattered and the demon is out of his bottle, and the only question now is whether he can ever be put back in. Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, should be frightened by what Congress just did, for fear is now the best assurance that the next Congress, or the one after that, will not do unto the next guy worse.