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Issue 35, February 1999

Impeaching the president

    A republican 'coup de Starr'
    Eroding 'civic stability'

The Senate trial of William Jefferson Clinton proceeds as we go to press, with the prospect of quite a lengthy process. LYNN WALSH argues that serious big business strategists fear that their representative institutions are being thoroughly discredited just as they are about to be tested by deepening social crisis and political turbulence.

APART FROM THE religious-conservative right-wing of the Republican Party, few people in the US believe that the president's sexual contacts with Monica Lewinsky or his attempts to conceal his conduct, however deplorable, amount to the constitutional standard of 'treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanours' required for impeachment.

With Senate seats divided 55 to 45 between the Republicans and Democrats, nobody (with the possible exception of some fanatical right-wing Republicans) believe that, whatever the evidence, there is any possibility of a two-thirds majority of 67 votes to remove the president. As the Republicans themselves rejected the idea of a compromise censure, even if Clinton agreed to confess to perjury (which always seemed unlikely), the end result is likely to be an acquittal for Clinton.

Meanwhile, opinion polls consistently show that well over 60% and up to 70% of the public are totally opposed to the impeachment proceedings. Even a quarter of loyal Republican voters are against impeachment. (International Herald Tribune, 11 January 1999)

Editorials of two major capitalist papers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, came out against impeachment. Two former presidents, Gerald Ford (Republican) and Jimmy Carter (Democrat), called for a bipartisan compromise: "Our political institutions are called into question. Public confidence erodes under waves of personal smear-mongering… (Clinton) is not alone in standing before the bar of judgement. Our political system, too, is on trial". (New York Times, 21 December)

  While condemning Clinton's conduct as foolish, irresponsible and wrong, George Mitchell, former Democratic Senate majority leader (1989-95) and mediator in Northern Ireland, also condemned impeachment: "Ours is an intensely partisan and fiercely competitive system. But there are times when partisan pressure can jeopardise the national interest. This is such a time". (New York Times, 16 December)

So why is the impeachment process being carried through to the bitter end? The whole Starr investigation-impeachment saga reflects the fact that the Republican Party has been taken hostage by the religious right. Their grip on the party dates from the 1994 mid-term elections, which gave the Republicans control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954. The 73 Republican newcomers, mainly representing suburban constituencies, many of them in the South, played a dominating role. Under the fervent leadership of Newt Gingrich, they used 'moral' issues (Save the Family, etc) to mobilise support for a bunch of slogans presented as the 'Contract with America', which demanded tax cuts, term limits for elected representatives, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, an end to 'big government', and more tax cuts.

But they were cheated of the fruits of the 'Republican Revolution'. Abandoning the liberalistic promises of his first two years, Clinton stole many of the Republicans' policies. Discarding the last vestiges of New Deal liberalism, Clinton has backed reactionary policies on all major social and economic issues. He has carried through massive budget cuts, especially of public welfare, Medicaid and Medicare, health and safety at work, and environmental protection. He helped clear the way for more judicial executions and has campaigned on traditionally conservative issues such as V-chips for television sets and school uniforms. In the next budget he is proposing massive increases in arms expenditure. Clinton's main source of political strength, however, has been the long economic upswing, for which the presidency has collected the credit.

The attempt by Gingrich's 'revolutionaries' to impose their budget policies - tax cuts and more tax cuts for the super-rich - on Clinton by forcing two federal government shut-downs at the end of 1995 rebounded on them. The Republicans had not managed to achieve any of their key goals by the time of the 1996 elections and Clinton easily secured re-election for a second term.

Politically stymied by Clinton, the Republican right stepped up their campaign to destroy Clinton personally, to brand the first couple as corrupt (Whitewater, Travelgate, etc) and Clinton as a liar and serial philanderer. A report in the Wall Street Journal (21 December) summed it up: "Impeachment represents an outright war between the frustrated troops of a Republican revolution and a president who has stymied their agenda for several years". From the time Clinton was elected president, an extensive network of lawyers, journalists and publishers - financed by big business interests (including Big Tobacco and the health insurance companies) - had been digging up muck and hurling it at the White House (See Socialism Today No.26, March 1998). It was this right-wing conspiracy, with which Kenneth Starr had long been associated, which financed Paula Jones' sexual harassment case against Clinton - which led to Lewinsky.

  top     A republican 'coup de Starr'

BY TRANSLATING THEIR propaganda campaign of political denigration into an impeachment prosecution, the Republican right aimed to stage a constitutional coup against a twice-elected president - a Coup de Starr, as the witty writer Gore Vidal terms it. As Independent Counsel, Starr, appointed by right-wing judges, could serve as a constitutionally sanctioned political club with which to beat Clinton.

Far from initiating an uprising by the 'moral majority' against Clinton, however, the Starr Report provoked a reaction. However much Starr insisted that the issue was perjury and obstruction of justice, most people saw it as muckraking into Clinton's private life, a form of sexual McCarthyism. The Republican 'revolutionaries', who formerly claimed to represent 'mainstream' America, are now deriding the moral laxity of a public which has failed to support their moral crusade.

The mid-term elections last November registered an overwhelming rejection of Starr's prosecution tactics. There was a distinct swing away from candidates of the religious right. "Conservatism", commented Mark Barabak in the Boston Globe (3 January 1999), "has become associated with a series of negative stances, against abortion, against gun control, against environmental protections - and with angry messengers". A Republican strategist admitted that conservatism was increasingly seen by average voters as "a philosophy that is rigid, exclusionary and intolerant". Republicans like George Bush Jnr, who won the Texas governorship, and Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor of New York, are now trying to project 'compassionate' conservatism or 'common-sense' conservatism.

In mid-December there were reportedly between 25 and 30 Republican representatives who had reservations about impeachment and favoured some kind of bipartisan compromise (for example, formal censure of Clinton in return for some kind of confession). In the event, only four Republican representatives defied the House leadership and voted not to impeach Clinton on any of the four counts against him. The waverers were whipped into line by the House leadership.

Despite the fact they know they have no chance of achieving the two-thirds majority necessary to convict Clinton, the Republicans used their simple Senate majority to insist on the calling of witnesses, ensuring a more protracted hearing. While the proceedings have all the trappings of a judicial trial, the impeachment is essentially a political action - in this case a kind of ritual degradation ceremony aimed at besmirching, shaming and discrediting a president they cannot actually remove from office.

This exercise, unprecedented in the history of Congress, demonstrates the grip of the religious right over the Republicans. They are a faction of rigidly ideological reactionaries who currently set the tone for the coalition of pro-big business interests which make up the broader Republican Party. The religious right wield a disproportionate influence because they have a well organised, highly motivated base in key constituencies. They are linked with well-financed, vociferous groups like the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association, and militant anti-abortion organisations. Their decisive influence is not so much in elections themselves, as in the primaries which decide on party candidates, where the low turnout gives a well-organised minority a decisive influence. Any 'moderate' Republicans who opposed impeachment faced the threat of primary contests against right-wing candidates backed by the Republican House leadership.

  top     Eroding 'civic stability'

IT IS THIS peculiar balance of power within the majority party which has led to the extraordinary domination of Congress, for over a year already, by impeachment proceedings over secondary issues against a president who poses no threat to the ruling class. The capitalist politicians can indulge in this partisan warfare, however, because, behind the stage-managed battles, there are no fundamental differences on economic and social issues.

At the moment, moreover, the two major capitalist parties face no real opposition. Well under 40% of the electorate turn out to vote in most elections, reflecting the fact that the working class is effectively disenfranchised by a system of government and two party machines totally dominated by big business interests. Working people have no effective political representation. The trade unions are still mostly tied to the Democratic Party while the recently formed Labor Party, while an important step towards a workers' party, has not yet reached the stage of running its own electoral campaigns.

Even amongst those who vote there is enormous cynicism about political parties. In a Gallop poll in 1996, only 14.6% of the voters surveyed had 'quite a lot' of confidence in political parties, while 42.6% had 'very little'. (International Herald Tribune, 4 January). The percentage of registered independent and third-party voters in the US climbed to around 15% in 1996, up from only 2% of eligible adults in 1964. This is a significant trend, but at the moment the biggest party to channel this discontent, Ross Perot's Reform Party, is also backed by business interests and offers no real alternative.

In this situation, the Republican right feels it can afford the luxury of a vengeful vendetta against Clinton without worrying about the consequences for the ruling class. Capitalist representatives with more strategic sense, however, fear the potential danger.

  "If impeachment by the House and removal by the Senate", declaimed a New York Times editorial (16 December), "would simply harm (Clinton) and not the constitution, we would be all for it. But under the present circumstances of a polarised party-line vote, it would assault the constitution as well as public confidence in the most precious American asset, the orderly, quadrennial surrender of power from one chief executive to another and often from one party to another.

"That transfer of power without gunfire or legislative chicanery is the jewel in the crown of American democracy. It should not be sacrificed over Bill Clinton's inability to resist looking at thong underwear. If the Republicans remove him by simple force of numbers, the debate over whether this was a political coup will continue over decades and could become a bigger threat to civic stability than Mr Clinton's mendacity".

The ruling class, though it has a powerful state machine (which in the US includes brutal police forces and a massively repressive judicial and prison system), relies on the electoral system to legitimise its rule and maintain a social base amongst extensive strata of the population. With all their resources of wealth and power, this is relatively easy in periods of economic upswing and generally rising living standards. In periods of economic downswing, however, it is much more difficult - and the US is on the threshold of a deep recession or slump. Serious strategists of big business fear that their representative institutions and two major parties are being thoroughly discredited just as they are about to be tested by deepening social crisis and political turbulence. Apart from making it more difficult to impose the policies of capitalist crisis, further erosion of mass electoral support for the Republicans and Democrats can clear the way for the emergence later of a mass party of the working class.

George Mitchell spelt out the possible dangers quite bluntly. "A one-party impeachment vote", he wrote, "would throw… Republicans and Democrats in Congress into an angry bitter period of distrust and hostility that could last for years. The consequences of such a deep division in our politics should not be underestimated; it could destroy the ability to find the common ground so necessary for progress on different issues from social security to foreign policy". (New York Times, 16 December). By 'progress' Mitchell means cuts in the public financing of social security (pensions) and privatisation of pensions, and cuts generally in working class living standards, in order to shore up a diseased system against the interests of the majority of society.

For the strategists who see beyond the politicians' daily scramble for the fruits of political office, the 'promiscuous application of the impeachment process' (New York Times) summons up premonitions not merely of the unconstitutional transfer of power between bourgeois parties, but the future danger of a transfer of social power between the classes.

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