Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Hillary Clinton Skates. So it’s still 1999?

Chief Justice Roberts                          FBI Director Comey
On February 12, 1999, the Senate acquitted Bill Clinton of the obstruction of justice impeachment charge leveled against him. Conviction required 67 votes, but the Senate vote was 50-50, with five Republicans siding with all 45 Democrats for acquittal. Of the 5 Republicans, 3 later switched to the Democratic side, one (Olympia Snowe, R-ME) — objecting to Senate partisanship — retired seven years later, and one (Susan Collins, R-ME) remains a Republican senator.

At the time, the Gallup poll found that the country, by a 64% to 34% margin, sided with the Senate vote to keep Clinton in office. This is important. In 1999, the people stood with their president against those saying nobody’s above the law.

Clinton though impeached and subsequently stripped of his law license, completed every day of his scandal-marred tenure. But his vice president, Al Gore, failed in his bid to follow Clinton to the White House in 2000, with concerns about Clinton’s corruption playing an unknown but negative role in the Democrat’s loss.

Impeachment begins in the House.  Congress’s failure to convict Clinton in 1999 had a major impact on partisan House treatment of the next two presidents: George Bush and Barack Obama.

Many House Democrats, in the majority in 2007-08, believed Bush’s conduct of national security in relation to the Iraq War justified an effort to impeach him, but leadership knowing from 1999 that such an effort would certainly end in acquittal, buried their bill. Republicans controlled the House from 2010 onward, but never tried to impeach Obama for engaging in several apparently extra-legal activities, again knowing from 1999 the effort would be futile.

What so frustrates partisans is that impeachment is the only constitutional remedy for presidents who violate the law. And 1999 taught us impeachment won’t work.

Now it seems that 1999 set a precedent for related actions by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and FBI Director Jim Comey. Both are born in the Northeastern U.S., are associated with Republican administrations, and both are Irish Catholics. But the real similarity is that both are first and foremost lawyers, graduates of top law schools, political enough to rise to the top by serving their bosses, and trained to provide their clients the best possible defense. And as of today, lawyer Comey has, as did lawyer Roberts before him, reached a tortured decision on behalf of his client: the American people as represented by their elected president.

Washington D.C. operators recognize the people are sovereign; we live in a democracy. But D.C. insiders earn popular support by boosting alliances, raising money, and pushing issues that bring the masses behind them. Incumbent Washington leaders are winners for a reason. And in 1999, President Bill Clinton not only beat the obstruction of justice rap, he also, according to Gallup, held the people with him.

If John Roberts, an unelected justice, had chosen in 2012 and 2015 to follow the law and undercut the president’s cherished Obamacare, Roberts would have have faced a firestorm of outrage engineered by the nation’s top elected official that could have led to a major defeat at the polls for the Supreme Court’s public standing. Better caution over courage — side with the president and the people who elected him, whatever the law.

Had Jim Comey today gone against Obama and Hillary Clinton, he would have upended the presumptive Democratic nominee’s election prospects and offended potentially a majority of the people, creating a firestorm of outrage against the FBI. Better caution over courage — side with the president and Hillary Clinton, the future president Obama wants, along with the people who elected Obama, whatever the law.

1999 showed impeachment doesn’t work well on small stuff. Now Comey acts as if Hillary Clinton is already president, provided the unique protections the constitution affords a sitting president, who in practical terms cannot be prosecuted for lesser crimes.

Yes, Comey, like Roberts, seems guided not by law, but by 1999.  We have two sets of laws, one for presidents (and future presidents) and one for the rest of us. If in 2016, the people are fed up with the special treatment afforded current and future presidents, they can vote to overturn 1999’s lesson.

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