Censure and Sensibility

Isn’t the tortuous pace of the Clinton impeachment saga beginning to resemble a 19th-century Russian novel? Chatterbox is reminded of the Russian classic, Oblomov, in which the languid hero spends the first 250 pages struggling to get out of bed. And if Dostoyevsky were writing the story today, he’d probably call it, Crime and, Maybe If the Polls Agree, Some Kind of Punishment.

That’s pretty much the theme of Friday’s front-page New York Times update with the Snooze-Alarm headline, “Clinton Censure Gains As Option.” Buried within the Eric Schmitt story is a classic illustration of how Washington really thinks. Schmitt outlined the three high-minded reasons why most House Democrats would be likely to back a censure resolution: 1). They’re still mad at Clinton. 2). They fear looking ridiculous in the history books. 3). They worry about their poll support among older women. As Schmitt writes, “Party leaders believe that a rebuke of the president would help shore up support within that important constituency [older women].”

Let’s parse Schmitt’s third point, because it is so revealing of Washington micro-political analysis. Let’s stipulate (Chatterbox loves that legal phrase) that the 1998 exit polls were accurate in picking up a significant drop off in Democratic support among women of a certain age. Even so, it is still hard to find a mandate for censure in published post-election polls. Typical is a CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll, conducted after Ken Starr’s testimony, that found that only 31 percent of those surveyed backed censure when also given a choice of more impeachment hearings (29 percent) and letting Clinton wiggle off the hook (38 percent). Like most published polls, the sample was not large enough to break out the sentiments of sub-groups like older women. But even if these women disproportionately tilted toward censure, an iffy case, there is absolutely no evidence that this will be a voting issue in the next national election, almost two years away.

This is not to challenge the validity of Schmitt’s reporting. He accurately reflected what he was hearing from, presumably, the likes of Dick Gephardt. But this small matter captures the bizarre wheels-within-wheels flavor of Washington thinking. The apparent Gephardt logic: Because Democrats lost, maybe, 5 percentage points among older women in the last election, we have to somehow punish the president’s behavior on the remote chance that anyone remembers our stance when it comes time to vote in 2000. Yeah, Dick, sure.

Chatterbox has major problems with congressional censure, ranging from constitutional questions to the toothless nature of the punishment. Ever curious, Chatterbox hunted down the exact wording of the Senate’s March 28, 1834, resolution reprimanding Andrew Jackson, which is the closest historical parallel to congressional censure of Clinton. It read as follows: “Resolved, That the President, in the late Executive proceedings in relation to the public revenue, has assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both.”

Talk about language guaranteed to sear the flesh of any president. Why it had all the emotional power of corn-meal mush. Cuss words like “derogation” would really teach Clinton never again to mess with interns and lie under oath about sex. This wrist-slap resolution didn’t even help Andy Jackson’s enemies win the support of older women, who, of course, had to wait another 86 years to get the vote.

Walter Shapiro