Essays on American politics and foreign policy
By Donald E. Nuechterlein
Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist
and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the
author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy,
- Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
- America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
- A Cold War Odyssey, 1997
PRESIDENTIAL IMPEACHMENT TRIAL PRODUCED IMPORTANT LESSONS
One month after the Senate concluded the impeachment
trial of President Clinton, many still wonder why a majority of
senators failed to convict him on either the charge of perjury
or obstruction of justice. Important lessons were learned from
this episode, but one of the benefits is the civics lesson many
Americans got about our constitutional system of government.
Here is my list of the major lessons we learned:
- No matter how serious are the charges of misbehavior
brought against a president, Congress will not remove him if he
has public support and the backing of his own party.
Most Republicans and Democrats were astonished to learn
that Clintons job approval ratings went up following
revelations about his White House dalliance with Monica
Lewinsky, and again after his admission last August of
"misleading" the public, the cabinet, and his own aides. A
majority of Americans told pollsters they did not want Clinton
removed from office, even though an even larger majority
believed he lied about his relationship with the White House
intern. Regarding party loyalty, nearly all Democrats in the
House of Representatives voted in December against the two
articles of impeachment. When the Senate voted in February, all
forty-five Democrats opposed his conviction, more than enough
to prevent removal.
- When the U.S. economy is healthy and
Americans are pleased with their living standards, they will
oppose the ouster of a president even if his behavior in office
The inflation and jobless rates in the country were
near all-time lows over the past year, and the stock market was
booming. The standard of living for nearly all Americans rose.
Unlike Richard Nixon, who presided over a troubled economy
during his impeachment ordeal in 1974, Clinton benefited
enormously from the "good times." Despite their lack of trust
in the presidents integrity, the public didnt want Congress to
tamper with the successful economy.
- Whenever the president is of one political party and
both the Senate and House of Representatives are controlled by
the opposition party, there is a likelihood that impeachment
charges will be brought when major scandal involves the
Nixon faced a Congress dominated by a Democratic Party
which was determined to impeach him for the Watergate scandal,
even though his job approval rating remained high. When it
became clear that key Republican senators would not support him
in a trial, Nixon resigned his office. Ronald Reagan might have
been impeached in 1987 over the Iran-Contra affair, as both
Senate and House were again controlled by Democrats. Reagan
avoided Nixons fate because the public did not want him
removed, and congressional Republicans stood by him.
- Opinion polls are a powerful new dimension in
American politics and they make many members of Congress less
courageous than before in voting their consciences.
It took courage by Republican senators Howard Baker and
Barry Goldwater, among others, to call on President Nixon to
resign. In the Clinton-Lewinsky episode, not a single Senate
Democrat demanded Clintons resignation, even though many of
them condemned his actions. Senator Robert Byrd, for example,
said that even though he believed the president had committed
high crimes and misdemeanors, he would vote against conviction
because the public was opposed. Other Democrats expressed pangs
of conscience about their votes.
- White House domination of political news from
Washington, particularly television news, gives a president and
his staff enormous influence over the national agenda and the
publics perception of reality.
A seven-month effort by President Clintons "spin
doctors" to deny his salacious relationship with Miss Lewinsky,
and their success at political damage control following his
confession to lying about it, underscores the power of the
modern presidency to influence, even control, public opinion.
All presidents have press secretaries who put out the correct
line on their policies. But the Clinton White House has, in my
view, elevated media management to a science. One has to admire
the way Clintons team was able to eclipse the voices and the
message of Republican leaders during the Lewinsky scandal, and
during the impeachment process.
- The constitutional system of checks and balances
worked, even though many political leaders and scholars warned
that the country, including the stock market, would be
imperiled by a presidential impeachment at this time.
We heard people say that bringing formal charges
against Clinton would have serious consequences at home and
abroad. Even if he was guilty, many said, Clinton should be
censured, not impeached, because of the effect on foreign
policy. In the end, the trial was managed in a praiseworthy
manner by Senators Trent Lott and Tom Daschle and presided over
with dignity by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The Senate
emerged from this political crisis with its reputation
enhanced, and no visible harm has come to the country.
- Extramarital sexual escapades are unlikely to be held
against a future chief executive if he shows contrition. But
lying about a sexual affair, however defined, will still get a
president into trouble. The Clinton-Lewinsky episode taught us
that most Americans no longer care about the sex life of their
president if no crime is involved.
We will not see another presidential impeachment for
some years. But one benefit that emerges from this affair is
the publics new awareness of our system of checks and balances
in government. We are hopefully a wiser people for having gone
through this painful process.
File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST