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An Englishwoman in Washington: Partisan cheese

Everybody in Washington knows that, whatever happens to Bill Clinton's authority as a result of the failed impeachment process, at least as much damage has been done to the standing of his Republican opponents. What surprised me when I arrived here, however, was exactly what the Republicans were being criticised for the most.

I could make plenty of damning criticisms of the Republicans - their sad attempt to ride back up the opinion polls on the hem of Monica's soiled dress, their lowlife tactic of abandoning political debate in favour of an obsessive focus on the president's sordid personal affairs, their repulsive combination of prurience and puritanism, etc. It has all helped to expose the degraded and rather desperate character of the American right at the end of the 1990s, a decade after the high tide of Reaganism.

Yet in Washington, the ineffective Republican opposition has not primarily been criticised for any of this. Instead they seem to have attracted most criticism only for 'being partisan'.

'Partisan' has been the key word since the impeachment process started. Calling somebody partisan has become the most damning indictment facing anybody involved in this affair - including the president. Now this label has stuck firmly to the Republicans, they have no hope of winning anything from the process.

Republicans are labelled partisan because they have consistently voted along party lines to expel a Democratic president from office. It is as though they are using the impeachment process to see through what they failed to achieve at the ballot box. As a criticism, this is fair enough. But you could charge the Democrats with being equally partisan in their defence of the president, as Democratic Party representatives and senators (some of whom have suggested he is guilty) have loyally followed the party line by backing Clinton in all votes.

But the partisan charge never sticks to the Democrats, because the charge is not so straightforward as that. 'Being partisan' now means something more fundamental. When people call the Republicans partisan they really mean that they are acting in a political, self-interested and, above all, an absolutist manner.

The Republican house managers, who prosecuted the case against the president, talked about notions like 'political responsibility', the 'rule of law' and 'the Truth'. They have stated that no man should be above the law and insisted that the hard facts of the case demonstrate the president's guilt. But these grand words and high-sounding values have not gone down well. Espousing such traditional-sounding American principles is distinctly out of fashion.

Instead of principled political leadership, empathy and understanding are the desired qualities in a political figure these days. As one woman explained to me, 'what they don't understand is if you look at anybody's private life close enough you'll find a dysfunctional family'. If we are all dysfunctional, from the voters to the White House, who are the Republicans to be setting themselves above us?

The Republicans are hated because they are too hard and literal about the facts, and as a result look as though they lack compassion. Clinton made sure that his defence team did not fall into the same trap. In stark contrast to the crusty old prosecutors, Clinton chose a mixed race and sex team to gain sympathy for his plight. They talked about the president's shame and his family's pain. And while the Republicans talked about the Truth, Clinton's young black female defence attorney, Cheryl Mills, spoke of the many truths that could be taken from the evidence.

Slowly the Republicans have come to realise what they are up against. They did not call Betty Currie as a witness, despite the fact that much of the case hangs on her testimony, for fear that this would be seen as persecution of a sympathetic witness. By February Republicans with their eyes on the next presidential election were moving to bring the trial to a swift end and calling for a new 'compassionate conservatism' to replace their discredited creed and rejuvenate the old party. Even the frustrated and bewildered leading Republican prosecutor Henry Hyde recognised, just for one moment, why he was making no progress, when he blurted out to his non-judgemental Democratic opponents, 'Well at least we believe in something!'.

The irony, of course, is that this is not even true. The Republicans may articulate lofty principles and strong beliefs in words, but words are all those principles consist of. In reality, they are backpeddling on every principle they once held dear, and shying away from issues like abortion which formed the bedrock of the modern American right. But this is doing them no good either. People have not reacted against the Republicans' discussion of 'strong values' because the values themselves are abhorrent. The reaction is simply against the notion of having any strong principles at all.

Perhaps the most worrying result of the impeachment process has been people's general unwillingness to make a judgement about anything. Even if there was a public demand for Clinton to go because of his sexual indiscretions, that would be better than the current acceptance that nothing in politics really matters, and that there is no point taking a stand. If the Republicans were judged harshly for what they were, that would be welcome - but instead they are judged only by the fact that they say they stand for empty principles.

The congressional Republicans are just too out of step with fashionable, relativist values to win out in modern-day America. The more they pushed against Clinton, the more they damaged themselves. The polls are with Clinton because while the prosecutors insist that the case is black and white, it seems that a lot of Americans prefer to see many shades of grey.

Helen Searls

Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999



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