The president and his defenders question the legitimacy of last month's impeachment vote on the grounds that it was driven by Republican partisanship. As proof they point to the super-majority of House Republicans who voted to send the case against the president to the Senate. Republicans respond: to the contrary, the fact that all but five Democrats voted against impeachment proves that they acted from partisan motives. Implicit in both arguments is the suggestion that partisanship is always bad. American history teaches otherwise.
Now it is true that America's Founders decried partisanship. George Washington in his Farewell Address, for instance, warned us "in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party…. The spirit…exists under different shapes in all governments…but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy." But Washington and the Founders had in mind two particular types of partisanship that had well-known and destructive historical track records: religious-sectarian partisanship and partisanship along class lines. The first, of course, had generated massive oppression and strife in the European countries from which most early Americans emigrated. And the second became a threat to our own democracy in the years immediately after the American Revolution, when legislatures acted irresponsibly to relieve contracted debts by printing worthless paper money.
In brief, the kind of parties feared by the Founders were those based on opposition to the core principles of the Constitution, e.g., religious freedom and the rule of law (which is the basis of contracts). But when the American party system as we know it was born in 1800, it was not to destroy, but to save the Constitution. It occurred when Thomas Jefferson perceived a movement afoot to transform the national government into a tool of a ruling elite, and formed the Democratic-Republican party (as it was originally called) to unite Americans against it.
Since 1800, we have had two-party government. Ordinarily these parties have been united on questions of fundamental principle. They have performed the useful functions of choosing candidates and presenting voters with different policy choices. But on occasion, the fundamental agreement between the parties (and within the nation) has broken down in a way to threaten the Constitution. On such occasions, as with Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans, our party system is called to perform its highest function: to reunite the nation behind the Constitution.
Last month's debate over President Clinton's impeachment, which continues in the current debate over a Senate trial, is such an occasion. Consider the opposing positions.
Supporters of impeachment/Senate trial argue that the Constitution stands or falls on the rule of law, or the principle that laws apply equally to all. The Constitution stands or falls on this principle if for no other reason than because it is itself a law. Indeed, it is our highest law. It governs our democratic process. A president who holds himself immune from laws that have been established through that process is a president for whom the Constitution itself must hold no force. This is intolerable.
Opponents of impeachment/Senate trial endorse, in effect, the principle of ad hoc application of the law. In the case of President Clinton, this means excusing felonies for which other Americans are jailed (and, ironically, barred from voting), on the grounds that he is a popular leader. From a wider perspective, it means applying all or most laws unequally, according to the wisdom and foresight of those assigned to apply them (usually bureaucrats and judges). This idea of ad hoc application of the law is nothing new: consider affirmative action, which entails unequal application of laws based on race in the pursuit of predetermined socioeconomic goals.
At times of such fundamental political disagreement, high-sounding calls for "bipartisan compromise" like those issued in recent weeks by Bob Dole, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are not in fact high at all, but rather frivolous. "What's a Constitution among friends?" seems to be the attitude of these mediocre elder statesmen. And should they convince the Senate to forego a full-length impeachment trial and paper over this deep disagreement with a toothless "censure resolution," it would only delay the inevitable time of reckoning, perhaps until it will be too late to rally Americans behind the Constitution.
Dole, Ford, Carter and other censure proponents advise "fairness" in resolving this controversy, while at the same time withholding judgement on the radically different understandings of fairness at the controversy's center. Time will tell shortly whether Senate Republicans and moderate Democrats will follow this lackadaisical advice, or whether they will follow the courageous example of the House of Representatives. Will they shelve the issue of constitutionalism via a bipartisan compromise, or stand as uncompromising partisans of the Constitution?