Republicans have chosen a steep path strewn with hazards. However, by their choice they have pledged allegiance to the republican principle. They are trying to spike "the silent artillery of time."
For democrats, "responsive" is the highest encomium for government. They favor maximum feasible directness in the translation of public opinion into government policy. They want opinion to be only minimally mediated. They believe that in polities larger than city-states, representatives are necessary, but a representative's duty is deference -- faithful, immediate, emphatic replication of opinion into action.
The Founders and subsequent republicans believe public opinion is the starting point of popular government, but opinion should be refined by deliberative processes. The "republican principle . . . does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse." When "the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations" it is the representatives' duty "to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection" (Hamilton, Federalist 71).
By leaning against the wind of opinion on impeachment, the Republicans exercised leadership. That is perilous in a democratic age because leadership suggests, if not a defect, at least an insufficiency on the part of the people.
Although people clamor for leadership, when it occurs they are apt to regard it as an act of lese-majeste because it implies that deliberative processes of representative institutions are required to "refine and enlarge" their opinions (Madison, Federalist 10). The Founders and subsequent republicans have worried more than democrats have about the importance of, possible scarcity of, and provision for, virtue, absent which popular government will fail.
In his most famous utterance, the first Republican president and most profound president wondered whether a nation like America "can long endure." A quarter-century earlier, in his extraordinary speech to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, he worried about the damage done to nations by "the silent artillery of time."
In this, Lincoln echoed Edward Gibbon's last volume of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," where the first answer Gibbon gave to the question of why Rome fell was "the injuries of time."
Gibbon's last volume was published in 1788, as the ratification of the U.S. Constitution was being debated. Benjamin Franklin, asked as he left the Constitutional Convention what it had wrought, replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." America's Founders were haunted by history's record of the failure of republics. In his farewell address, George Washington pondered what could "prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations."
The Founders knew the ancients' assumption that virtue tends to be a wasting asset, that morals tend to deteriorate, and therefore that fatalism is wisdom: Nations rise and fall by natural cycles. The boldness of the Founders was in their belief that history could be beaten by reflection that results in institutions: our constitutional order.
Republicans flying in the face of today's political ethic -- its categorical imperative: to thy polls be true -- should take comfort from the fact that their resistance to President Clinton's lawlessness has a pedigree that runs back to the Founders' thoughts about the perils that make republics perishable. Mr. Clinton's calculated, sustained lying has involved an extraordinarily corrupting assault on language, which is the uniquely human capacity that makes persuasion, and hence popular government, possible. Hence the obtuseness of those who say Mr. Clinton's behavior is compatible with constitutional principles, presidential duties and republican ethics.
It is axiomatic: Worse than a society with no law is one with only law. As law metastasizes in America, codes of personal behavior wither. Increasingly, our leaders -- disproportionately lawyers -- behave as though the silence of the law confers permission: What is not proscribed is permitted.
One manifestation of the degeneration of private judgment is the president's evident incapacity even to imagine that honor might require his resignation. For 11 months the nation has lived with a paradox: If he had the moral sense to resign, he would not be in the position to need to.
The Founders provided impeachment to cope with the likes of Mr. Clinton, a president who, by recidivist lying without remorse, has fallen below the threshold of minimal truthfulness and has traduced political discourse. He cannot speak credibly on grave matters, such as war. He should go, for the public good. Public opinion is neither sufficient nor necessary to justify that.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/20/98