And now, back to impeachment

As the House of Representatives returns to the matter of impeachment after a brief pause for the bombing of Iraq, Christopher Shays tries to explain why fence-sitting Republicans suddenly rushed to oppose the president.

Published December 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

NORWALK, Conn. -- As the House of Representatives returns to the matter of impeachment after a brief pause for the bombing of Iraq, the spotlight is once again on the handful of moderate Republicans still undecided.

There are very few of them. In the days after the close of the House Judiciary Committee hearings, formerly fence-sitting Republicans began lining up to declare their new resolve to impeach President Clinton. What had transpired to give impeachment such momentum -- "like a tidal wave," in the words of presidential advisor Harold Ickes? It may have been plain opportunism -- with the president's fortunes waning, there was no gain from standing against House Whip Tom DeLay and the craftily silent Speaker Bob Livingston (though with Livingston's relevations of his own affairs Thursday, maybe that silence was more prudent than crafty). But there's no denying the terms of the debate did undergo a transformation with the president's strange, self-flagellant plea for his own censure last week.

No one exemplifies that transformation better than Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut. As a leading campaign finance reformer -- author of the bipartisan Shays-Meehan bill and a critic of big-money politics in both parties -- Shays is the most prominent Republican skeptic of President Clinton's impeachment. Early on he announced himself outright opposed to impeachment. But after the president's speech last Friday, even Shays began to waver.

On Tuesday, hoping to hear "the wisdom of Solomon" from his constituents, he hosted a raucous, emotional town meeting on the president's future; some 1,100 people crowded into Norwalk City Hall auditorium while 1,000 others were turned away by fire marshals. Shays presided over what was less a public dialogue than a town-hall version of politically polarized talk radio. On Wednesday afternoon, as Washington teetered gingerly between imminent impeachment and imminent bombing, Shays was scheduled to meet with the president at the congressman's own request, but instead cooled his heels waiting to see if Clinton could tear himself away from bombing Baghdad. The meeting was rescheduled for Friday morning.

If Shays has been portrayed as something of a St. Christopher in this debate, it's because he earned a reputation for probity long before the campaign finance bill. When I first met him about 15 years ago, he'd just gotten out of jail. Then a young Connecticut state legislator, Shays had landed behind bars for the same offense that turned Susan McDougal into such an unlikely Whitewater martyr: contempt of court. Shays had taken up the cause of an incapacitated woman bilked out of her life's savings by Alexander Goldfarb, a prominent Hartford attorney and Democratic power broker. When a judge decided that the corrupt lawyer merited only the gentlest of wrist-swats, Shays rose to his feet in the courtroom and wouldn't shut up about how the legal profession was protecting its own until the judge ordered him escorted to a holding cell.

As Shays has spoken about impeachment in recent weeks, he, like some other Republicans, clearly feels caught in a corridor of rocks and hard places -- between his disdain for the far right wing of his own party, his commitment to constitutional principle and his utter exasperation at the president and what he sees as Democratic reluctance to confront genuine issues. "No one wants to admit how complex an issue this is," he said to me when the Judiciary Committee hearings were just getting under way.

Shays' sense of the issue's ambiguity and complexity is unfeigned. He voted to authorize an impeachment inquiry: "There was enough evidence to require that" -- but as the Judiciary Committee concluded its work he remained firmly convinced that "there were crimes, but not high crimes. Perjury is not a high crime. I don't see impeachment justified if that's the case." I asked him what seemed an obvious question: Why was there not on this Judiciary Committee an equivalent of Lowell Weicker, the maverick Connecticut Republican senator (and later independent governor) who during Watergate broke with the Nixon administration to defend constitutional principle. Shays responded by inverting the question: "Why is there no Weicker in the other party?" -- no Democrat on the Judiciary Committee willing at least to admit the seriousness of the president lying under oath and feeding falsehoods to aides he knew would carry them to the grand jury? "The partisanship was a two-way street."

To approach Shays and other Republican skeptics on their own terms is to gain some insight into why the long impeachment campaign turned so suddenly into a juggernaut (at least until the political wild card of Clinton's Iraq bombing). Shays -- like Rep. Peter King of New York, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and a few others -- represents a distinct Republican tradition that occupies the margins of the post-Reagan GOP but that can claim a long lineage of reformers going back through Nelson Rockefeller to trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt, early birth-control advocates, 19th century feminists and abolitionists (and on the darker side, to prohibitionists and anti-immigrant crusaders).

Shays' political mentor was Weicker; Shays' congressional predecessor in the Fourth District was the late Republican Stewart McKinney, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia after sleeping on a Washington street grate to protest budget cuts in shelter for the homeless. He is part of a tradition of Yankee blue-blood indignation: Shays' sense of political probity can be traced back to an old agrarian America that felt its status threatened on the one hand by the rise of corporate power and on the other by urban Democratic political machines that rose to serve the tidal waves of immigrants that reshaped American society from the end of the Civil War onward.

That is the history that inescapably shapes many of those "moderate Republican" fence-sitters. In Shays' account, two factors conspired last weekend to leave him with a growing sense of unease. The first was the president's own speech: "He just doesn't get it," Shays said of the president's latest lip-biting act of contrition. Clinton's remarks displayed with singular clarity the two personal characteristics that most offend his detractors: the dodgy language ("misled") and the underlying insolence (who is the president to declare he will "accept" censure, as if he had the option of defying Congress' jurisdiction?).

The other disruption was a conversation with his old mentor Weicker, who still lives in Shays' congressional district. The White House legal team at one point reportedly hoped Weicker would speak out on the president's behalf. Instead Weicker, an independent since 1990 and long an admirer of the Clinton administration, has come to believe that presidential perjury at any level is profoundly subversive of the legal system -- even under the corrupt circumstances of Kenneth Starr's investigation. "Impeachment," as Shays has come to view it, is in some sense a secondary question. The broader problem is that Clinton's lying -- first to the Paula Jones court, then to the American people -- is only part of an overall erosion of trust in the executive branch, stemming from Clinton's fundamental defects of character. "The president's word simply isn't good in Washington," Shays said Tuesday. The incredulous reaction to the timing of his decision to bomb Iraq only underscores the problem.

It's this collapse in Clinton's political credibility that Shays believes underlies the hemorrhaging of Clinton's support among his fellow moderate Republicans -- and it is for this reason, not for some extraconstitutional degradation ceremony, that he still thinks Clinton's only hope is a full-throated acknowlegment of lying under oath.

For this critical handful of reform Republicans, Clinton's impeachment remains more intensely problematic a crisis than for anyone else in the House. Intellectual, pro-choice, supportive of social welfare programs and embracing a general sympathy to civil liberties, they're isolated within their own party. Yet one of the mainsprings of this particular Republican tradition -- going back to the days of the trust-busters and muckrakers and early progressives -- is opposition to political corruption. So to them, what began as a vendetta by Starr and fanatic wackos like Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., seems now unalterably cast in the terms not of law and the Constitution but of a national morality play about Clinton's lying.

Shays once went to jail to defend the integrity of the judicial system as he saw it. He now sees that integrity at risk both from the president and from an overreaching impeachment drive. His desire for the redemption of Clinton's presidency is genuine, even curiously pious. That is why he says he requested a private meeting with Clinton. "I am going to tell him that if it is his decision not to resign, the only alternative he has is to tell the truth in a way that no one can mistake. Getting votes in Congress shouldn't matter. My belief is that if the president told the truth without any angles to it -- even if that put him at risk of going to jail -- it would dramatically increase his credibility," and make impeachment less than a foregone conclusion.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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