As liberal America has been engaged in a long-overdue outpouring of recrimination and rethinking about the impunity enjoyed by powerful men who sexually harass their subordinates, Bill Clinton’s misdeeds have naturally returned to the fore. “At the time I, like most Americans, was glad to see Clinton prevail and regarded the whole sordid matter as primarily the fault of congressional Republicans’ excessive scandal-mongering,” confesses Matthew Yglesias. “I think we got it wrong.” Asa Hutchinson, a Republican former member of the House and a fervent proponent of impeachment, appears in the New York Times to take a victory lap. “Some of the same people who dismissed the women who came forward” then, “it seems like they’re evaluating these issues differently now than they did during that time.”
It is definitely true that Democrats underplayed the extent of Clinton’s crimes, especially ignoring Juanita Broaddrick’s credible accusation of rape and the disturbingly coercive overtones of his encounter with Paula Jones. But the Clinton scandal was not about Broaddrick or Jones, nor even about the propriety of his affair with an intern. It was about the propriety of impeaching the president for concealing an affair. The events of the last two decades have not made that case look any better.
While a handful of high-profile and unconvincing contemporaneous defenses of Clinton’s behavior have received some retrospective attention, it’s an enormous mistake to conclude that Democrats on the whole were defending the president’s behavior. On the contrary, they condemned it forcefully and repeatedly. “As deeply disappointed as I am with the process, it pales in comparison to the disappointment I feel toward this president,” Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said during the impeachment debate. “Maybe it is because I had such high expectations. Maybe it is because he holds so many dreams and aspirations that I hold about our country. Maybe it is because he is my friend. I have never been, nor ever expect to be, so bitterly disappointed again.” It is difficult to find an example of Democratic rhetoric that did not express this theme.
The Democrats’ position at the time was that Congress should pass a resolution formally censuring Clinton — a rare, historic expression of condemnation. The Republican position maintained that such an act was unconstitutional. (“Censure violates the rules of the House. It’s unconstitutional. It’s a terrible precedent,” insisted Majority Whip Tom DeLay.) Democrats focused their dismay on the Republican refusal to allow such a vote. “In this debate, we are being denied a vote as an alternative to impeachment for censure and condemnation of our president for the wrongful acts that we believe have been performed,” complained House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.
If the two parties agreed that Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky was very, very bad, what was the dispute about, anyway? It centered on the legal process. Special Counsel Kenneth Starr was appointed in 1994 to investigate Whitewater, a land deal that predated the Clinton presidency. Having failed to produce any evidence of criminality, Starr expanded his investigation and set a trap in which he could ask Clinton under oath if he had conducted an extramarital affair. When Clinton denied it, as adulterers tend to do, Starr nailed him for perjury.
At that point, Republicans concluded that it was not only proper but utterly essential to impeach and remove Clinton from office. It is impossible to capture the fervency with which the conservative movement made the case that the rule of law itself hung in the balance, and that allowing Clinton to remain in office after he had concealed his affair from Starr would render the Republic a lawless autarchy. It is also impossible to recall the extent to which they lionized Starr, who during the late 1990s was the epitome of virtue and honor in the right-wing mind. (Starr went on to become president of Baylor University, where he was eventually forced to resign for his complicity in a culture of systematic sexual abuse. His reputation on the right has undergone no critical reassessment.)
Suppose Donald Trump had an affair with an intern, initiated by the latter, as Clinton’s was. And further suppose, in the course of investigating the Russia scandal, Robert Mueller maneuvered Trump into denying it. Would that be grounds for impeaching him? No, it wouldn’t even make a list of Trump’s 100 most-impeachable offenses.
There are certainly some Democrats who lionized Clinton as a human being, and a somewhat larger number who do so today. I was not among them. The revelation that he put the liberal agenda at risk by having sex with an intern was widely greeted with disgust, as was the insight into his grossness as a man. One of my friends at the time quipped, “I’m against impeachment, but in favor of suicide.”* The public gave Clinton high job-approval ratings and low personal favorable ratings, reflecting a broad ability to distinguish between his policies and his character. In 2000, the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, steered clear of Clinton and chose as his running mate Joe Lieberman, the Democrat most known for forcefully denouncing the president’s morality.
I wish we liberals had done more to take seriously the episodes of alleged rape and sexual assault that were not the basis for a national impeachment trauma. For better or worse, though, those episodes were not at issue. It’s hard to change the subject when Congress is conducting proceedings to impeach and remove the president. At issue was the procedural extremism of a Republican Party that was transforming before our eyes into the uncompromising fanatic faction whose character is fully manifest in the party of Donald Trump and Roy Moore. I don’t think we got that wrong at all.
*Update: This passage wasn’t clear. It was an ironic reference to Clinton committing suicide, and in earnest, meant that he should resign out of humiliation.