He Has To Go

Dec. 31 1998 3:30 AM

He Has To Go

Pep rallies and polls aside, Clinton is unfit to serve.

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The preliminaries are over. It is time to decide. Should the Senate convict President Clinton and expel him from office? My answer, after months of indecision, is a strong "Yes!"

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I had formerly been impressed by the argument that ousting Clinton would set a precedent for any party having a sufficient majority in Congress to get rid of any president, which would convert us into a parliamentary democracy. At one time I had thought our problem might be solved by the 25th Amendment, which provides for the removal of a president found unable to perform the duties of his office. But that required the concurrence of the vice president, which would surely not be forthcoming. I had also thought that Clinton might save us a lot of soul-searching by resigning, but apparently he will not. At some times I thought that censure or rebuke might do as punishment and expression of indignation.

I can say exactly when I came to the conclusion that Clinton had to be removed. It was the morning of Dec. 15, 1998. That was two days before the House of Representatives was to start action on impeaching him. It was also one day before he gave orders to bomb Iraq. I got out of bed that morning, took in the papers, and scanned the first page. Within 10 minutes I was decided, and not only decided, but decided with a heat that I rarely feel about public affairs. What sparked this heat was the picture of Clinton in Gaza, and the reminder of the picture of Clinton the previous day, wearing a yarmulke at the grave of Yitzhak Rabin. And I suddenly thought, "Is this the man I want representing the righteousness of America in a land sacred to billions of Jews, Christians, and Moslems?" Then I asked whether I wanted him to represent us anywhere. Do we want him laying the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, comforting our mourners, saluting our heroes? Do I want to see his "sincere" face on television every day? No, decidedly no!

No, even more decidedly no, after the bombing of Iraq. I don't know whether he decided to bomb Iraq in order to divert us from the forthcoming impeachment debate. That is the point: I don't know, and most of the world doesn't know. He has generated the belief that he is capable of taking such grave action to save his own skin. Terminating the action in Iraq without any conclusive results only a few hours after the House voted for impeachment strengthened that belief. He had started the bombing just in time to give his supporters the refuge of arguing that to impeach the commander in chief while our troops were in harm's way would be unpatriotic. He had stopped the bombing as soon as that argument became useless. That is an abuse of power! The whole episode shows how unfit he is to be president. He has polluted the atmosphere within which policy decisions are made.

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L ike almost everyone else, I want to get "this thing" over with. But to me "this thing" is not only the process; it is also the Clinton presidency. I don't want to punish him or have a national catharsis. I want something more practical. I want him off our screen.

I admit that I never wanted Clinton to be president and never voted for him. But I was always "cool" about it. I have not been a deep-dyed Clinton hater. Except for the 1993 health care plan, and his vacillation toward Iraq, his policy has not been terrible, in my opinion. The performance of the economy during his administration has been good, and although I don't attribute very much of that to him, at least he has not been an obstacle. I don't expect any improvement, or any change, in public policy as a result of his departure.

In an article I wrote during the 1996 campaign (pre-Lewinsky) I said of Clinton:

But he has one serious deficiency as a president. He is prone to foolish mistakes. Every president, like everyone else, makes mistakes. Foolish mistakes are ones that could reliably have been known in advance to be mistakes. There is something in Bill Clinton--some odd combination of naivete and conceit--that makes him liable to such mistakes.

He has gone too far in his foolish mistakes, and beyond foolish mistakes, and I am no longer "cool" about him as president.

People who are legally fastidious say it's not the sex, it's the perjury. For me it is partly the sex. If he had lied under oath about parking illegally I wouldn't be so disgusted. But for a married man to have oral sex with a woman employee less than half his age in the Oval Office--I can't claim not to be offended by that. I have been told that is an old-fashioned, puritanical attitude. But even old-fashioned puritans have the right as citizens to protest the behavior of their president. And it is not only the perjury. It is the sophomoric deviousness of the perjury that is an insult to our intelligence.

The constitutional question remains. Does his behavior add up to grounds for removal from office? The words in the Constitution, "high crimes and misdemeanors," give us much latitude. If the framers had wanted to limit us more they could have been more specific. Essentially, they left the judgment to us--not to an opinion poll or even to our political representatives who are closest to the people but to our most senior political representatives, the Senate. My opinion is that not every perjury is a "high" crime, as grounds for removing a president from office. But I believe that Clinton's performance, before and after his perjuries, has universally generated such a response of disapproval, ranging from cynicism to disgust, as to degrade the ability of the presidency to serve its function. Clinton has said that it is his goal to degrade the ability of Saddam Hussein to threaten Iraq's neighbors. But Clinton has degraded the ability of the president of the United States to lead the nation and the world. That is a high crime.

I am still concerned about the risk of setting a precedent for opposition majorities in Congress to remove presidents for purely political reasons. Future generations will have to deal with that. For now we have to set the precedent that presidents of the United States should so behave themselves as to merit the confidence of the world. This is a big country, and surely we can find men and women in it who are as capable of being president as Mr. Clinton is and who are also able to commit themselves to good behavior.

The Constitution requires a vote of at least two-thirds of the Senate to convict and expel a president. The Republicans will not have a two-thirds majority, and Clinton cannot be convicted on the votes of Republicans alone. That is a good thing. The precedent-setting risk would be greater if the president were convicted by a strictly party-line vote. The case against the president should be strong enough to justify some members of his own party voting against him. In the case of this president, it is.

Herbert Stein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He died in September 1999.

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