A way around our impeachment debacle: Bob Dole's 'censure' solution

A way around our impeachment debacle: Bob Dole's 'censure' solution
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An American statesman's wise — but ultimately unsuccessful — effort to forestall a constitutional crisis nearly 21 years ago is a valuable lesson for us all. And it could demonstrate how we can avoid dragging the nation through yet another wrenching, destructive and ultimately pointless political battle today.

In December 1998 I had the honor to serve as communications director for retired U.S. Sen. and former presidential candidate Bob Dole (R-Kan.). During that time I bore witness to an amazingly selfless act of statesmanship and patriotism.

In the middle of the bloodlust of certain Republican members of Congress to impeach President Clinton at any cost, Bob Dole — the man Clinton defeated for the presidency two years earlier — sought to piece together and then throw the president a censure “lifeline.” Not so much to rescue the president but, rather, to spare the nation the pain of a possible impeachment trial in the Senate, while simultaneously protecting the sanctity of the Oval Office.

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To be sure, Dole had a number of very valid reasons to still hold a political grudge at that time — if not against President Clinton, then most assuredly against Clinton’s campaign, which raised millions of dollars in a number of troubling, suspect ways and used that cash to bury Dole under an ever-growing garbage heap of negative, misleading advertising.

To his great credit, Dole felt it was his duty to the nation to graciously accept the result of the election and immediately move on with his life. That is not to say that certain tactics that led to Clinton’s victory still did not sting or give him pause. 

As life would have it, two years after that bitter 1996 loss, the man who defeated him was in the midst of a personal and political scandal. By December 1998, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had drafted four articles of impeachment against President Clinton.  A full trial in the Senate to vote on those articles of impeachment loomed.

As some Republicans and those ideologically or morally opposed to President Clinton  metaphorically got ready to storm the White House with pitchforks and torches, Dole knew the impeachment process was not only at least tainted by the perception of partisanship, but was increasingly divisive for the nation and would leave a scab that might take years to heal.

In an effort to preempt that destructive process, which was getting rhetorically uglier by the day, Dole — the former Senate majority leader and acknowledged expert on congressional procedure — drafted the elements of a tough but fair censure of the president in the form of a “joint resolution” to be approved by the House, the Senate and President Clinton himself. It was a censure that would publicly “punish” the president by having him agree to the listed offenses but stop the impeachment process in its tracks.

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This censure solution was then published by the New York Times on Dec. 15, 1998. The idea died an immediate and almost unnoticed death at the hands of the Republican congressional leadership of the time. The impeachment mob was on the move, and self-serving politics demanded its appeasement.

Today, few fair-minded Americans probably believe President Clinton should have been impeached by the House or that our nation should have been put through such a ruinous spectacle. 

History shows that, precisely because of the repugnant partisanship that drove the impeachment process, the pendulum of public opinion swung in favor of President Clinton — so much so that many analysts believe he would have won reelection easily if he legally had been allowed to run for a third term in 2000.

Twenty-one years later, in the “Age of Trump,” the scab of impeachment that Sen. Dole once hoped to heal not only has been ripped clean off, but its self-inflicted infection is spreading across the country.

In 1998, a number of Democrats — and fair-minded Americans — believed that impeachment was nothing more than a partisan vehicle to force a legitimately elected president to resign. Sadly, in the two decades since, politics has only gotten more partisan, personal and increasingly threatening.

The healing appeal for censure was ignored in 1998. In 2019, it is seen as a sign of ideological impurity and weakness to be exposed and exterminated by the “cancel culture.”

Screeching voices fueled by irrational hate are beginning to dictate actual policy. Woe to us all if we can’t stop them. 

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.