It is probably just as well to acknowledge that the election results have made removal of President Clinton from office through impeachment rather unlikely. In contrast to the Watergate scandal, when a number of Republicans distanced themselves from Richard Nixon early on, House and Senate Democrats, despite a few flurries of open criticism, seem likely to hang tough, maintain a solid front, and vote against either impeachment or removal from office. The reasons for this preternatural loyalty to a president who has done little to warrant it and much to betray it are more likely to be found in psychoanalysis than in political calculation, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
The virtual certainty of ultimate failure, however, does not mean that the impeachment effort in the House should be ended as quickly as possible. Indeed, the largely hostile media and political climate are all the more reason to broaden the inquiry to include other allegations of presidential wrongdoing or malfeasance, as Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde seems inclined to do. If the only result is to create a record for future historians to ponder, maybe that's not such a bad outcome.
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Whether wisely or not, the House did vote to commence an impeachment inquiry and it would be awkward and irresponsible simply to end it because the president's party gained a few seats during the midterm elections. Short-circuiting the inquiry really would make the entire process a joke, and a partisan joke at that.
Now that the process has begun, however, there is nothing dishonorable about continuing it, making the best possible case for impeachment, and forcing House members to take a stand in the face of the evidence, even if the process' leaders are doubtful about the final outcome. And the best possible case for impeachment was never lying about a tawdry affair with an intern -- which is not to denigrate the seriousness of perjury or the repulsiveness of the serial-sexual-predator aspect of Mr. Clinton's character. L'affaire Lewinsky is still relevant, as part of a pattern. But the best possible case for impeachment is a pattern of abuse of power, and clear-cut instances of abuse of political and official power at that, rather than manipulation of the political and legal systems to cover up personal obnoxiousness.
For all the legal trappings, impeachment is essentially a political process and the political dynamics just now seem to militate against a successful impeachment. Now that the House is committed to an inquiry, however, it owes it to itself, to the country, to any hope for acceptable standards of behavior in office in the future and to history to do as thorough a job as possible. The Judiciary Committee should be committed to making a compelling case that even though the political climate favors the president just now, a respectable case (at least in a political vacuum) could be made for impeaching this president. Perhaps the effort will have an admonitory influence on future presidents -- perhaps even on this president during the remainder of his time in office.
To make a respectable case, however, especially if part of the purpose is to set a standard for future presidents, would require more than Monica-related lies. Reminding people that the Monica case was of interest because of the Vernon Jordan connection -- in that Mr. Jordan seems to have been active in getting fat fees for former Assistant Attorney General Webster Hubbell so he could continue to stiff the independent counsel and was right there again when Mr. Clinton needed to find Monica a cushy job to keep her quiet - than for salacious reasons is a good start. But it shouldn't be the end.
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Whatever Ken Starr discusses besides Monica Lewinsky, then, the House Judiciary Committee should conduct a vigorous probe into all the old, still-festering sores that have plagued the Clinton presidency. Filegate, of course, the unauthorized procurement of FBI files on political enemies, should be on the list. Travelgate involved a political abuse of the FBI in inducing it to claim there were some kind of criminal allegations against Billy Dale. Whitewater offenses are still relevant, especially those related to shifting personnel decisions at the Resolution Trust Corporation, something that occurred when Mr. Clinton was president, not before.
Whatever one thinks about Vincent Foster's death, the White House cover-up response to it was an unquestionable abuse of power. It is relevant to inquire as to the source of the funds -- China? -- John Huang allegedly used to allegedly buy Webster Hubbell's silence, which would lead to extraordinary campaign finance law violations and the possibility that political donations affected U.S. foreign policy toward China.
Not to mention starting Wag the Dog military actions. And if claiming obviously bogus executive and "protective function" privileges wasn't obstruction of justice, just what was it?
In short, there are plenty of reasons -- good, solid abuse-of-political-power reasons -- to inquire into the possibility of impeaching Bill Clinton. To avoid making the process a joke, the House should bring forward and discuss all of them.
One more thing. Sentiment in favor of impeaching Richard Nixon did not materialize until there had been weeks of televised hearings, which had a cumulative impact on attitudes and actually produced a few shocking revelations. It has been handy for congressional Republicans to have Ken Starr around to do spadework (and take the heat) but if they want an impeachment inquiry to be anything more than a futile gesture that will quickly be dismissed as utterly partisan, they need to lay out the case in public, before the public, and at least give people the benefit of the doubt -- that they might change their opinions and attitudes if presented with enough compelling evidence.