Putting the Party Back in Politics

Lucas Morel

December 1, 1998

Following Saturday’s impeachment vote against him for perjury and obstruction of justice, the President trotted out the same speech he gave after the congressional elections last month. Both speeches decried “partisanship,” and went on to outline a legislative agenda to reform Social Security, improve schools, and pass a “patient’s bill of rights.” But what Clinton fails to understand (or cares to admit) is that each of these issues involves partisan alternatives for their reform. In short, the two major political parties in America have opposing views of the problem, and therefore cannot help but appear “partisan” in their debates over these issues. And this is as it should be.

Repeat after me: “Partisanship is good.” Only by getting the political parties of this country to take their own platforms seriously can the American people make principled decisions about the direction government should take on this or that issue. This is what made at least last Friday’s impeachment debates so refreshing for any citizen who bothered to notice.

There was Henry Hyde, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, actually making _an argument_ in favor of impeachment: “The matter before the House is a question of lying under oath. This is a public act. This is called perjury.” Talk about connect the dots! Here was a Republican Congressman teaching the nation the terms of the debate, and how they should be applied to the president’s alleged conduct.

Heading the loyal opposition was Richard Gephardt, the Democratic House Minority Leader, responding in kind: “We are considering articles of impeachment that allege an abuse of power. We have an obligation not to abuse our power.” Wow! A real “back-and-forth, your turn/my turn, you’ve heard the facts, now let each side have its time at the microphone” debate over the serious matter of presidential misconduct. What could be a more important, and therefore more urgent, item of national business than that?

That members of both political parties gave public voice to their convictions, and “Nightline” and the major newspapers let the opposing sides say their piece with nary an interruption, was a tribute to what our national self-government was capable of. James Madison, writing in the famed Federalist Papers, defended a representative form of government because it would “refine and enlarge the public views.” In other words, a national legislature would neither crudely replace nor mindlessly adopt public sentiment. Instead, government by delegation would be more reasonable and less emotional as representatives were drawn from all parts of the nation, sharing the diverse sentiments of their local constituents with each other before deciding how to act on them. The fact that there was considerable debate over whether or not to impeach the president should therefore come as no surprise: the Framers planned it that way!

What is surprising is that some congressmen thought there should be no diversity of opinion. Rep. John Conyers claimed that a vote of impeachment would amount to a “Republican coup d’etat.” Has he not read the Constitution, which does give a bare majority of the House of Representatives power to impeach a president but requires a super-majority (or two-thirds) of the Senate the power to convict? The Framers knew that any attempted removal of the president would involve partisanship, and therefore they protected the abuse of the process by dividing the task between the two dissimilar branches of Congress and increasing the majority needed for conviction.

As for the claim that “a majority of Americans” favor censure, have we already forgotten the electoral results of November 3rd? The flip side of the much trumpeted fact that Democrats increased their minority share of congressional seats is that a majority–yes, a majority–of Republicans were elected to Congress. That’s the majority that counts, not polls and focus groups. If that majority, plus or minus a few Republicans and Democrats, saw impeachment as their constitutional responsibility, then “the people” have spoken–at least according to the Constitution.

Alexander Hamilton wrote that “wise and good men” will be found “on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.” Instead of impugning the motives of those who disagree, which has nothing to do with partisanship, senators should consider and respond to the facts and arguments that surface in the coming trial of the president. The trial, which no one expects to result in conviction, should at least teach the American people one lesson: both Democrats and Republicans can stand up for their partisan as well as personal convictions, and help an increasingly distracted but always working populace to think through the nation’s business.

Lucas Morel is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an assistant professor of Political Science and History at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.