No Laughing Matter

Peter W. Schramm

October 1, 1998

September 24, 1998. I was paying for my lunch at the restaurant on campus when a colleague approached. He confronted me in that all-too-sober way some folks with certain political leanings have established by long habit. You know what I mean, a condescending seriousness born of moral superiority. It is at times like these that I am glad I have a sense of humor.

Didn’t I think, he asked (knowing the answer that any fellow sophisticate must give), that all this Clinton stuff was only about sex, and that sex was, after all, a private matter? And didn’t I think that all this hullabaloo about Bill Clinton was overdone, and that he wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, be impeached? After all, this wasn’t Watergate–that was important.

I deadpanned and said it’s the cigar. It was a Cuban. It is illegal to import Cuban cigars into America. He broke the law; he’s got to go.

But my morally grave colleague was in no mood for humor. He insisted that I get serious. He said the arrogant majority in Congress is pushing us into a constitutional crisis. And that is dangerous. It will have a devastating long-term effect on our political institutions. The Republicans are about to overturn an election in which the people elected Clinton president. He asserted that that would be nothing less than a coup d’etat. It would be undemocratic.

Seeing that wit would be wasted here, I began the laborious explanation: This is not a constitutional crisis. It cannot be a crisis since the Constitution considers the possibility, and spells out the reasons for impeachment, and the exact way in which it should be conducted. The Framers thought this one through, I explained.

Furthermore, while the framers wanted a strong and energetic executive, they also didn’t want the president to turn into a king, even for a four year period of time. They had some bad experiences with men in executive power who couldn’t be removed (except by revolution or decapitation, of course). They had to devise a way to remove him from office if he became deeply injurious to the nation and the Constitution.

A republican people, sworn to eternal vigilance on behalf of their liberty, had to have a way of removing a president should that president prove no longer worthy of continuing to hold the office. The people elected him indirectly (through the Electoral College) and the people had to have a way of removing him indirectly (through their representatives in Congress). Impeachment is not a negation of the voice of the people, but an affirmation of their voice through the Constitution.

My earnest colleague then made the same argument based on opinion polls: Opinion polls are firmly in Clinton’s corner, the people don’t want him impeached, he said. For Congress to act against the people’s will is undemocratic.

I explained the obvious: The representatives of the people, assembled in both houses of Congress, have a duty to abide by the Constitution. Even if the polls are accurate at any point in time, it is the duty of representatives not to simply react to the polls.

This is not a plebiscitary democracy. It is a regime in which the people govern through the Constitutional processes originally established (and amended) by the people. This is a constitutional people governing itself. That is why it may be said that it is the duty of representatives to refine and enlarge the people’s view. Else they would become nothing but enablers of the people’s passions and temporary prejudices. Will and passion would rule over deliberation and choice.

We live in a regime in which elections take place, and these are the real polls, they count. Madison referred to a presidential election as “an impeachment before the community, who will have the power of punishment, by refusing to re-elect him.” The president, he said, “is impeachable before the community at large every four years, and liable to be displaced if his conduct shall have given umbrage during the time he has been in office.”

Three months ago the Democrats were saying that they had a good shot at taking back the House, and maybe even gaining a Senate seat. Now, since the president’s grand jury testimony, the only question is how much of a beating they will take at the polls. There are some ominous signs that they are going to lose more than fifteen House seats, and anywhere from four to seven Senate seats.

While it is true that the Congressional elections of 1998 are not presidential elections, it is also inevitable that the elections are, in effect, in the Madisonian sense, an impeachment vote. While the impeachment process in the House Judiciary Committee is already in place and will be formalized before the November elections, there is no question that Democratic losses in November will make a formal impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate all the more likely.

By now it had dawned on me that I had neither inclination nor ability to stir the wit in my colleague, and the conversation ended on this all too sober note.