2017-11-16 – Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998 on charges that stemmed from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him. He was acquitted by the Senate in 1999. No Democrat in the Senate voted for his conviction.
This raises two related questions that have new importance today:
- Should the Democrats have stonewalled Clinton’s impeachment?
- What is the appropriate punishment for sexual abuse/harassment by a politician?
One of the talking points of GOP defenders of Alabama’s senate candidate Roy Moore is that Democrats have no right to complain about Moore’s sexual misconduct because they were silent about the sexual misconduct of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Lots of Democrats are asking themselves: were we wrong then?
I was torn then. I was not a Bill Clinton fan when he ran for president in 1992. I liked Jerry Brown. (Too bad he was never president!) Clinton was a little too far to the right for me and he was scummy. He was willing to execute a prisoner to burnish his personal reputation. And he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. I voted against him in the primary, but voted for him in the general election. (Same pattern as the 2016 election with a different Clinton.)
When Clinton’s sex scandal gained momentum in his second term, I was embarrassed. But impeachment? It seemed like the Republicans wanted to punish Clinton’s voters for Clinton’s private behavior. I went back and forth. But in the end, I decided that the Republicans were overreaching. I agreed with the Democratic opposition.
But maybe I was wrong. Maybe we were wrong. Maybe when your guy does things that are so sleazy that you can’t contain your embarrassment, you’ve got to let him go. Maybe that WTF feeling is an alarm that you should listen to.
And what would have been the consequence if the Democrats would have let Bill Clinton go down in flames? Al Gore would have become President. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except for the fact that the GOP would have then tasted blood.
The problem we had in 1999 was that there was only one option for punishing Bill Clinton: impeachment. And impeachment carried a heavy price that would be borne by many people beside Clinton himself. What if there had been a lesser penalty that would have had meaningful consequences for Bill Clinton that didn’t also drag me down?
I would have been all for it. (I wasn’t really all that far from supporting impeachment, anyway. So a lesser penalty would have been easy for me to accept.)
This is a common problem with criminal penalties, not just penalties for sex crimes. If penalties are perceived as too harsh, some decision makers (judges and juries in criminal cases, senators in impeachments) squirm at the idea of imposing them. Others, who are out for blood, want to apply the maximum. And the interplay between the two leads to wildly erratic and unprincipled penalties.
Should we have allowed the maximum punishment of impeachment be imposed on Bill Clinton? Look what happened by saving his skin. George Bush was elected in 2001. Hillary Clinton was later a candidate for president and beaten by Donald Trump in 2016. I don’t think either of these things would have happened if Clinton was removed from office. Democrats won the battle, but lost the war.
Have we learned our lesson?
The GOP now has the same lesson to learn in Alabama. Are they going to keep fighting the battle in support of Roy Moore? Will winning that battle win the war for them? I doubt it.
(And in all of this battling, what about the women who were harassed and abused?)
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UPDATE: WTF Al Franken! I’m gagging on your tongue, too. What would be an appropriate level of punishment for you? Oy!
2nd UPDATE: Franken’s acceptance of a Senate ethics investigation is a positive move. We’ll see what they think is an appropriate level of punishment.
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