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Shandean Postscripts to Politics, Philosophy, & Culture - Republicans, the Republic, and the Imperial Presidency: Clinton's Impeachment

About Republicans, the Republic, and the Imperial Presidency: Clinton's Impeachment

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In The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans, William R. Everdell points out the stark contrast between the reaction of Congress to Ronald Reagan's undermining of the Constitution through his funding of a "private" terrorist war in Central America (called "the Iran-Contra" scandal, though that is a misnomer) and the reaction to President Bill Clinton's lies about his own personal sexual affairs.

Twelve years after Iran-Contra, the issue of presidential power came up again, only this time Congress actually voted to impeach. This time the president was chief of the Democratic Party and the party of impeachment was the Republican, the party that had once endorsed Reagan. Small "r" republicans, one might think, should have been pleased at the Republican initiative, and the more republican they were, the less pleased one should have expected them to be that the impeachment process, which the Framers designed to check monarchical tendencies in the executive branch, had not proceeded all the way to conviction by the Senate. In the main, however, republicans disageed with Republicans . . .

Why was this so? Was it because the impeachment of William Clinton turned out badly, like that of Andrew Johnson in 1868 thus tarnishing the impeachment tool? This theory is unlikely is unlikely because the Senate's failure to convict Johnson did not, in fact, prevent impeachment from "working." Its effect was to cast an impeachment shadow over every subsequent presidency, and not until Grover Cleveland did a president indulge in the kind of unilateral action that had been characteristic of Lincoln and [Andrew] Johnson.


Everdell then points out reasons why other presidents should have been impeached but weren't. Lying, obstruction of justice, and aggrandisement of executive power are grounds for impeachment if the idea of the Republican form of goverrnment has any meaning. Going to war by executive order is grounds for impeachment if you adhere to the ideology of republicanism. There are very few republicans left in the commanding heights of the Republic. For republicans executive power is suspicious by its nature. In this light one might ponder the non-existence of republicanism in the Republican party. For a conservative republican the idea of the Imperial Presidency should be considered an abomination. By any definitiion, there have been very few leaders of the Republican Party since Thaddeus Stevens who have actually been republicans, and there have been very few leaders of the Republican Party since Robert Taft who have even tried to be conservative republicans. The name of "The Republican Party" has become like one of those real estate developments or geriatric care centers that are named Pine Estates or Lake View to make up for the complete lack of pine trees or lake views.

The impeachment tool was invented to curb the monarchical tendencies of executive power. At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, Federalists and anti-Federalists alike argued over whether their were enough safe-guards against the presidency turning into an elected monarchy, no matter for how limited a time. The thrust of Hamilton's arguments in Federalist #67 and #69 was that there were plenty of limits on executive power in the Constitution and impeachment was one of them. Hamilton, who was in favor of a strong executive, seemed to believe that Congress would be vigilant in protecting the Constitution from the president. There is evidence that the framers of the Constitution thought that impeachment and the subsequent trial would not be an exceptional tool but a threat that could be used to keep the president from over-reaching. Later this was certainly the view of the radicals in the Republican Party during the period of Reconstruction. Thaddeus Stevens believed that any excessive exercise of presidential power or refusal to use the executive branch to institute the laws passed by Congress should be an impeachable offense. Presidential lying to one of the other branches and to the citizens of the Republic should be impeachable in principle. Congress, as a separate branch of government, a branch of government entailed to protect the people from the monarchical tendencies of the executive, should use impeachment, trial, and conviction to curb such misdeamenors of the President as lying to the other branches of government and to the citizenry. So why, Everdell asks, did most consistent republicans consider the use of the impeachment tool against Clinton, who lied and obstructed justice, a misuse that brought discredit to the idea of impeachment? Everdell then compares Nixon's crimes to Clinton's crimes:

[I]f President Clinton obstructed justice, in the manner alleged by the House, it can only have been in order to avoid prosecution for perjury in a civil suit brought against him personally - a perjury alleged under a legal definition which his testimony hardly met - and Clinton seems to have scrupulously avoided using the public powers of his office to fend it off. By contrast, Nixon obstructed justice in order to cover up illegal activities deliberately designed and undertaken in order to undermine the constitutional powers of the other branches of government, and thus ultimately undermining the powers of the people who made that government in the first place. Moreover, he used the statutory powers of his own office to do it. Clinton's wongdoing, in other words, was a private offense, whose victim, if any, was an individual. Nixon's wrongdoing was public; its victim was not only the people but their polity. Nixon's was therefore a crime against republican government; and Clinton's was not. Widespread inability in 1998-99 to make the distinciton between these two kinds of wrongdoing was an indication that the republican concept of political "virtue" had changed its meaning. Many on both sides of the debate, it seemed, had lost sight of the public interest and a few had even lost the capacity to deploy the very concept of the 'public good.'

Reagan's activities, too, and those of his loyal appointees, had struck a blow at republican government. . . . Reagan's wrongdoing, too, was constitutional rather than criminal, not private but public. Fundamental to all these presidential cases is a confusion between private and public, personalities and powers, that still threates the Constitution; and the impeachment of President Clinton began by making that confusion worse.


The tradition of consistent republicanism, not to say radical republicanism (both in the post-civil war Republican Party version and in the revolutionary tradition of John Milton or Thomas Paine) was once a good bourgeois tradition. It could even be considered a tradition of a section of the capitalist ruling classes. There are perhaps still a few who are rooted in this tradition --Gore Vidal comes to mind -- but it is hard to think of prominent intellectuals or capitalists that consider themselves consistent or radical republicans in this old idea of the virtue of the commonweal, res publica, the public thing.

Why has radical republicanism so thoroughly disappeared from the Republic that was at one time its modern emblem? Part of the story has to do with the rise of industrialism and the modern working class. As the socialists used to say and as was recognized even by Romantics such as Percy Shelley, it is the working class that inherited the tradition of radical republicanism. The demand for universal suffrage for all men and women became a working class demand and along with it came the idea that the economy itself was part of the commonweal. The economy was a social as well as a political good.

But this is not the part of the story I want to concentrate on. Proudhon, Marx, and Engels long ago told this story much better than I can ever tell it. They understood the decline of radical republicanism among the creators of modern republicans from a socialist and class point of view. But I think it is useful to briefly assume the world view of an Old Roman Tribune. I don't mean a famous tribune such as Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus or Marcus Livius Drusus, the kind you read about in the history books who sought to reform the Roman Repubic, in the teeth of the rulers in the Senate, for its own good These tribunes were surely good republicans and deserve our respect. What I am thinking of is the kind of tribune who fought the everyday fight for the independence of the plebs as a group and gave protection to all those who were unjustly (and sometimes justly) accused of crimes. Think of Radical Republicanism from the Old Tribune's point of view and try to translate that ideology to our time.

What the Old Tribune would see is the following: The constitutional Republic has become a vast empire and in order to control an empire there is a need for a standing army that can respond anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. In order to control this standing army a strong executive authority is required. Thus the imperial presidency grows with every expansion of U.S. military and economic dominance in the world. The Old Tribune will understand that in order to protect economic dominance military dominance must follow. Economic dominance is either protected directly through domestically raised military forces that are then stationed at foreign bases or is maintained indirectly through client state military regimes that are bought and supplied. The Old Tribune would understand that a strong executive is needed for both of these kinds of regimes of military protection. In other words he would understand the rise of the Imperial Presidency quite well. If the Old Tribune had survived a bit into the Principate of Caesar Augustus he would also understand how a Republic can maintain its outward form but at the same time come to be ruled by a strong Imperial Executive. From the Old Tribune's view it would be easy to see that that is what we have now.

The Old Tribune would find it harder to understand other aspects of our political and social system. The existence of the business institutions we call corporations does not have any easy analogy with business groupings in the Roman Republic. The nearest he could come to by way of analogy would be the publicans and the colleges of business groups. But as far as legal relations are concern the idea of the Pater Familias combined with the Publicani and Colleges (collegia opificum) would be closer to the mark for the Old Tribune. For then the Tribune would see the enormity of the power of the modern Corporation. The biggest modern multinaional corporations are bigger than all but the biggest States. The multinationals corporations act as if they have their own special sovereignty. In this sense corporations are like heads of families in the Roman Republic. Each head of a family had his own sovereign domain separate from Res Publica, just as each corporation has its own legal domain separate from the commonweal. But the difference is that there is nothing "personal" about a corporation and nothing to stop it from growing immensely big. In this way a modern corporation will look to the Old Tribune something like an impersonal separate sovereignty, a Pater Familias without moral compunction, a combination of publicani with legal sovereignty, and a huge power center with separate loyalties like one of Caesars' armies.

Now if the Old Tribune comes to that realization he will understand what has happened to the Republic. It has disappeared under overlaying sets of separate sovereignties (i.e. corporations) and the overarching Imperial Presidency that has become necessary to protect the economic domination of those separate sovereignties. The Old Tribune would tell us that we no longer have much of a Republic.

Bringing this note back to the impeachment of Clinton. Strangely, the impeachment of Clinton had the effect of strengthening the Imperial Presidency, not weakening it. The one salutary effect of the Nixon presidency was to make the idea of impeaching a president a viable alternative that could limit presidential action. There was what might be called "A Watergate Syndrome" that was analogous to "The Vietnam Syndrome." The Reaganites, among them Cheney and Rumsfeld, spent much of the 1980s arguing for an expansion of presidential power and a full return to the imperial presidency. They blamed the "Vietnam Syndrome" on the fact that the U.S. president could not bomb and invade at will, but they also blamed the "weakness" of the presidency and Watergate, on the fact that the President could not ignore Congress at will. One unintended but welcomed consequence of the Clinton impeachment proceedings was to trivilize impeachment as a tool of republicanism. Bill Clinton was an imperial president. There is no way that a president can lead this country with its military reach without acting like an imperial president. But he was too nice of an imperial president. He believed in cooperation with Congress and with European allies. This was not the kind of President that they wanted at all. How to hurt such a preseident without hurting the furture of the Imperial Presidency? By diligent displacement of problems of personality onto questions of power; by a substitution of the trivial of the private for the good of the public.

As for those of us who still consider ourselves in the revolutionary tradition (republican or socialist, bourgeois or working class) we can at least honor the ideal of republicanism of those such as Thaddeus Stevens. Let us do so by imagining a counterfactual for U.S. history. Thaddeus Stevens and his supporters succeed in convicting Andrew Johnson in the Senate. The precedent is established that "advise and consent" over members of the president's cabinet gives congress a great amount of power over how those cabinet members exercise their duties. The President's cabinet, including the Secretaries of War and of State serve at the behest of congress. In such a situation no president would be able to make an end run around congress and go to war without an official declaration of war. Such a situation would resemble a parliamentary system with the President as elected figure head, more than an Imperial Presidency.


Jerry Monaco
1 March 2008
New York City



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From:autobeast
Date:March 2nd, 2008 03:18 am (UTC)
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How do you think the idea that the framers came from a pre-industrial capitalist and pre-mass media context changes their arguments? I, for example, agree with Chomsky that most of the framers would have sounded a lot more like Labor party of the 1930s if they would have understood the coming context.
From:weverdell
Date:March 4th, 2008 04:44 am (UTC)

Republicans, the Republic, and the Imperial Presidency

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Thank you, Jerry Monaco, for understanding.
-Bill Everdell
NOTICE: Due to Presidential Executive Orders, the National Security Agency may have read this email without warning, warrant, or notice. All our executive magistrates believe it may do this without any judicial or legislative oversight. They have ignored legislative summonses, rigged elections and smeared dissenting legislators. They have ignored court orders, obstructed justice, fired dissenting prosecutors and replaced dissenting judges. They have ordered acts to be committed which are crimes under U. S. and international law. They won't stop. The President continues to sign laws he won't execute and won't obey. Because any president may now claim the power to do likewise, you have no recourse or protection save to call for impeachment of the responsible executives. Sooner rather than later. Cheney first.
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