by Amy Ridenour
Leading Congressional Democrats may be forced to decide if they are statesmen or politicians.
Now that President Clinton will testify before a grand jury, the country may soon decide what, if anything, should be done if the president committed a crime.
Should Ken Starr reveal concrete evidence that President Clinton has committed perjury, obstruction of justice or some other crime, will the country decide that the president should be impeached? Encouraged to resign? Indicted? Or should it decide that perjury or a similar crime isn't important enough to prosecute or penalize, because (or despite of the fact that) the President is the nation's top official?
If they choose to be, Democratic Congressional leaders can be key to the decision the country makes.
The support a President enjoys from his own party is critical. With that support, a beleaguered President can blame a scandal on partisan politics.
If the leaders of a President's own party conclude that the allegations against him have merit, however, the illusion that a scandal has partisan roots is ripped away.
In this case, the merits of the case will rest - at a minimum - on whether the President is able to convince the public, the Congress and possibly a jury that he didn't lie under oath.
If President Clinton is unable to do this, Democratic leaders will face a test that pits their loyalty to their party against the need for the nation's top official to be a person of integrity.
During Watergate, Republicans faced the same test. Republican Senate leader Hugh Scott, GOP Congressional leader John Rhodes, future Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and former GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, among others, all publicly concluded that restoring the public's trust in the presidency was more important than protecting the Republican Party. They let Nixon and the country know it - although they knew the result would be a bloodbath for Republicans in the 1974 mid-term elections.
Happily for Democrats, if they conclude that perjury was committed and that perjury is not an acceptable activity for the nation's top official, the political repercussions for Democrats would probably not be as bad as those the GOP suffered in 1974. In fact, a Clinton resignation could actually benefit Democrats:
* If Clinton resigns, Al Gore will have two years to serve as President, permitting the Democratic Party to nominate an incumbent President in the 2000 election. Incumbents have a significant advantage over challengers.
* If Clinton resigns, the nearly non-stop scandal coverage focusing on leading Democrats will ease. Al Gore could be vexed by the Justice Department's investigation of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign's fundraising, but probably less so than both Clinton and Gore would be if Clinton were to remain in office.
* If Clinton resigns, President Gore will have the opportunity to fight for issues Democrats believe in instead of being distracted, as Clinton is, by legal woes. A political party fighting for policy goals appeals to voters more than a party defending an individual.
* If Clinton resigns, Gore would fight for Clinton-like policies without the burden of scandal that causes Clinton to avoid the media and distracts him from lobbying on Capitol Hill. Gore thus could be more successful in achieving Clinton's policy goals than Clinton would be.
Some may say the fact that Gerald Ford lost the 1976 presidential election is evidence that it would be best for the Democrats to stick with Clinton now if they are to win the presidency again in 2000. But Ford nearly won in 1976 despite having to surmount several major obstacles Gore would not face:
* Ford suffered a severe loss of popularity after pardoning Nixon, but the country in hindsight believes Ford was right. If Gore were to pardon Clinton, most of the country would support him.
* Ford was president during high inflation and high unemployment. Gore would become president during the best economy in decades.
* Americans were shocked by Watergate, and Republicans bore the brunt of their dismay. Americans are less shocked by the Clinton scandals, in part because they've gone on so long and in part because the country has already lived through Watergate.
* Ford inexplicably declared that Poland was not dominated by the USSR during a key Presidential election debate, probably the most significant gaffe in election history. Gore is unlikely to make a gaffe of such magnitude.
If conclusive evidence is presented that President Clinton committed
a crime, Congressional Democrats will have a choice: act like politicians
and defend the President because he's a Democrat, or be statesmen and encourage
Clinton to resign so integrity can be restored to the nation's highest office.
Ironically, if Democrats avoid politics and become statesmen, it could benefit
them politically and help enact the policies the Democratic Party stands
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Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to email@example.com.
The National Center for Public Policy Research