Impeachment's Competing Visions

Impeachment's Competing Visions

January 31, 1999

The impeachment debate has depressed many Beltway insiders. In it however, I see reasons to cheer. Not because I much care what happens to this President or this Congress, but rather because I care (deeply) what happens to this nation.

The conventional wisdom holds that this situation evidences the collapse of consensus, the bitter divisiveness of partisan politics in America today, and the Religious Right’s dominance of the Republican Party. The public clearly opposed impeachment and yet the Republicans pushed ahead. To the chattering class, this is partisan politics and blinding ideology at its worst. Vox populi, vox dei.

Perhaps, but another more positive reading can be given to the impeachment debate. This debate, and the Republican insistence on moving ahead in the face of public opposition reversed (if only for a short while) the dominant quantitative view of government. This view, which has dominated American politics since the success of the progressives at the turn of the century, sees government as a readily controllable force for social justice. It displaced rather completely the view of the Founding Fathers that government was a dangerous but necessary institution – one that must be carefully circumscribed and limited if it is to be kept in check.

The Founders’ view was more a qualitative view of government. In this original view, there are many good and valuable things that government should not do . . . ever. Moreover, there are other things that only certain levels or branches of government should do. The Constitution is a document for checking – not empowering – government, for creating major distinctions between private and political action, and for ensuring that action would have to be critical for anything to happen at all.

The powers of the federal government were enumerated, the duties of each branch were carefully defined, and the power of democratic majorities was limited. This qualitative view of government was intended to be cumbersome and "lumpy" – it was not intended to be a fine-tuned instrument of social justice. Our Founding Fathers did not believe that government could exercise such discretionary powers safely. They were right.

For many years, the quantitative school was restrained by the persistent qualitative beliefs embodied in our Constitution. Even expansions of federal power had to be justified by appeals to the qualitative restrictions. Eisenhower felt the need to justify expanded federal highway and educational programs under the cover of promoting "national defense," one of the federal government’s few proper roles. Today, that fig leaf has largely been abandoned as conservatives and liberal alike seek for their districts more pork on any grounds, for any purpose.

This qualitative-quantitative distinction explains much of Washington’s rift over impeachment. The opponents of impeachment, mostly fans of Clinton, want him to remain in office because he’s done a "good job" in office, advancing pet causes and not knocking the economy off track. Defenders of impeachment, on the other hand, see a qualitative wrong, an abuse of the presidential power, and see only one means of addressing it. For them, the consequences of impeachment are less important than the certainty that it is the prescribed thing to do. Censure, although more palatable politically, is resisted on the same grounds. Convict or acquit – to qualitative school members like Phil Gramm (R-TX), there is no middle ground.

A pessimist might note that most Americans implicitly adopt the quantitative view. After all, many oppose impeachment because life is good. I, however, am an optimist (albeit a despairing one). I see progress in the debate itself – at least some Republicans have found an issue upon which polls and "results" are not elevated above qualitative constraints. The means are recognized to be as important as the ends. Vox populi may no longer be vox dei.

Qualitative government may be controllable; quantitative government certainly is not. By engaging this argument, the House Republicans have done us all a great service. Whatever else happens, America is likely to be the better for resurrecting this long neglected constitutional issue. Perhaps the leadership will even apply this approach to other issues. (One can hope.)