The great debates in American politics,” according to Christian candidate Gary Bauer, “end up being essentially moral debates.” In his current stump speech, Bauer likes to compare the anti-abortion crusade to Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery struggle. It is, he cries, “the soul of the Republican Party.” In fact, the abortion issue is not the soul of the Republican Party but rather its most divisive issue. In comparing abortion to slavery, moreover, Bauer conveniently overlooks the fact that the slavery issue was too morally divisive to be resolved by the political process. It took a bloody civil war to do that. If civil war is what Gary Bauer wants, he should be prepared to say so and to recognize his brotherhood with other radicals of the past, including the ’60s activists who used that identical analogy to identify (and legitimize) their war with America. This is not the voice of responsible politics and has no place in a pluralistic polity, let alone a party that aspires to be “conservative.”
Everyone who subscribes to the idea of American pluralism thereby accepts the idea that there are limits to what politics can accomplish, and to what is proper advocacy in a democratic society. Democracies work through coalitions, achieved through compromises that are both moral and political. Compromise is the condition of civil stability and peace. To articulate what is, in effect, the political equivalent of a call for civil war in a democracy like ours is nihilistic and destructive. The fundamental premise of pluralism is that morally incompatible communities agree to live with each other and respect their differences, and work together through political compromise.
That is why the new sober turn in religious conservatism is to be welcomed. The religious right has contributed greatly to the renewed public sense of responsibility and accountability in America over the last few decades (a fact the secular culture seems incapable of acknowledging). But now several of its leaders are beginning to acknowledge that the movement may be approaching the limits of what it can hope to achieve politically.
Paul Weyrich concedes that the majority of Americans do not share his values and, unlike Bauer, accepts that the political agendas of a democracy are necessarily circumscribed by the shared values of its constituencies. Those who are unhappy with those values must turn to avenues other than politics for the answers they seek. Moral goals can be achieved only by persuading a majority that those goals are right. And politics, which is an arena of moral compromise, does not provide the best means for accomplishing that task.
A new book by two former leaders of the Moral Majority makes the point clearly: “Those who are looking in whole or in part to the government to correct the problems of America are looking in the wrong place.” As one of the authors explained to a reporter for the New York Times, “Moral transformation will come one person at a time, one family at a time, one street at a time, one community at a time. It will not come from the government.” This is exactly right, and political moralists on both sides of the aisle (including the sin-taxers in the White House who want to save citizens from their bad habits) would do well to heed it. The failure to heed it is what led to the political fiasco of the impeachment process.
Now that the evidence is in, few people would deny that President Clinton is morally corrupt and that his corruption has had serious consequences for his office and for the general welfare of the American people. What could have been done to deal with this problem and how was it botched? These are critical questions because it is the manner in which the corruption of the presidency was dealt with on all sides that lies at the heart of the present impasse.
In the first place it is important to recognize the origins of the problem in the president’s own response to the exposure of his behavior. Once this happened, the president should have acknowledged that he had compromised his office and his own ability to fulfill his responsibilities. Then he should have resigned. He should have resigned not because he was morally impure or exceptionally dishonest (although he was both), but because of the damage that would inevitably ensue to the nation and his party if he decided to stay. (That was, after all, why Nixon stepped down when he did, instead of taking the fight to the bitter end.) Unfortunately, neither his responsibility to party or country seems to have mattered to Clinton, who often seems to exhibit certain classic sociopathic traits.
Absent a presidential conscience, the leaders of the Democratic Party should have stepped into the vacuum and attempted to persuade Clinton to leave. Once again, there is a parallel with Nixon. It was Barry Goldwater and Howard Baker who finally informed Nixon it was time to leave. Had Democrats followed their example and joined the chorus of 150 American newspapers who had called on Clinton to resign, Clinton’s departure would have been almost inevitable. Had he still refused to resign, he then would have been impeached and removed by a truly bipartisan vote.