With each passing hour, the Clinton mess becomes less about President Clinton and more about us. After all, the president has already revealed his character in this matter many times over. By now most Americans, including many of his strongest supporters, agree that he has lied brazenly and that his behavior has been appalling. As a political philosophy, the basic thrust of Clintonism--spin is everything and politics trumps morality--is easily recognized and widely understood. The only remaining question is whether we will now accept Clintonism as a normal part of our public life or reject it as something foreign and wrong.
What is this scandal telling us about ourselves? First, that we are deeply disunited. Commentators and officials constantly declare that “the American people” do or don’t favor some particular means of resolving this scandal. These declarations are wrong. People are divided. About one-third favor impeachment. Another third favor censure. Another third want the matter dropped. A majority opposes impeachment, but a majority also said that, if the president were impeached, he should resign. Many people seem curiously disengaged.
Second, the scandal is telling us that we are a morally changed society. Thirty or even 20 years ago, any president who did what President Clinton has done would very likely have been removed from office with overwhelming public support. Today, a majority of Americans, including many who believe that the president lied under oath, approves of his “job performance.”
As a result, our minimum public standards are sinking. In January, when the scandal first broke, it was said that adultery in the Oval Office could be overlooked, but not lying. When the president then lied, it was said that lying could be forgiven, but not perjury. Then the president perjured himself, whereupon we now have a debate in which most people do not favor removing a president from office for perjury.
Third, the scandal highlights our growing disavowal of any notion of public moral truth. According to Alan Wolfe in his recent book, “One Nation, After All,” most middle-class Americans get along fairly well in “a world without fixed moral guidelines,” which specifically means “not accepting God’s commands regarding right and wrong, but developing one’s own personal ethical standards.” In such a world, public moral judgment becomes all but impossible.
A majority of middle-class Americans embrace what Wolfe calls the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not judge.” What’s true for me may not be true for you, and that’s OK. Wolfe ultimately applauds this philosophy as the best moral solution to the challenges posed by pluralism.
But to give up on public moral truth is finally to give up on democracy. For the only alternative to knowable and shared morality is power, the raw assertion of strength. If I do not believe that we can and ought to reason together in search of what is morally true, then there is no reason not to cut your throat. Or hire detectives to dig up dirt on my political opponents. Or denounce the motives of anyone who disagrees with me. Or tell lies in federal court to protect my political viability. This dangerous idea that politics always trumps morality is why 24 scholars and leaders recently issued “A Call to Civil Society,” which does not mention the current scandal but insists above all “that moral truth exists and that it is accessible to people of reason and goodwill.”
What’s the best way out of this mess? If I were a member of Congress, I would favor impeachment and removal. But impeaching the president on a narrowly partisan basis, as the House Republicans have done, creates a terrible historical precedent and is likely to contribute further to the hyperpartisanship of our politics.
In only the last several amazing days, two of our few remaining pillars of democratic civility--the tradition of bipartisan support for a presidentially ordered military action and the idea that it is wrong to impeach a president on a party-line vote--have begun to crumble before our eyes. This should stop. Discerning a clear and broadly shared moral message from this awful episode is more important than anything that is likely to result from continued political warfare.
For this reason, I still suggest a simple resolution passed on a bipartisan basis, stating that, “By his misconduct and public lying, President Clinton has disgraced himself and weakened the country he was elected to serve.” There would be no reason to require or even seek President Clinton’s signature on such a resolution, and certainly no reason to confer with him about its wording. This matter is no longer about him.