“Bill Clinton has been a disaster for the Democratic Party. Send him packing… You can’t lead a nation if you are ashamed of the leadership of your party. The Clintons are a terminally unethical and vulgar couple, and they have betrayed everyone who has ever believed in them.” — Bob Herbert, Liberal columnist for the New York Times, February 26, 2001.

Yawn… It is difficult to once again become outraged about former President Bill Clinton’s recent pardons. Perhaps I am just as spent as an elderly fire horse too old to respond just once more as a Clinton scandal rings the fire bell.

The pardon power is, and ought to be, part of the unfettered discretion of a chief executive. Pardon decisions must rely on the judgment of the executive. Elect an executive with a well-tuned conscience supported by a strong ethical base and you will reap gracious, thoughtful, and merciful pardons. Elect a different type of executive and you will be disappointed. Where’s the news? What did you expect? What did Bob Herbert and other Democrats think would happen if they, by their previous unflinching support, allowed Clinton to believe he was immune from the ethical constraints others must respect? It is hard to muster sympathy for the enablers.

Of course, there remain some Conservatives and Republicans who are not as spent as I am and are willing to pursue this scandal. But for me, interest requires something new or unexpected and so I grow bored. The trajectory of a Clinton scandal is so utterly predictable. We have lived through so many of them that it is now possible to generalize about Clinton scandal ballistics.

First, everyone is upset, even Democratic allies of Clinton. Second, Clinton supporters search for parallels, no matter how contrived or strained, of similar behavior by previous presidents. This strategy is designed to raise Clinton’s relative stature by dragging down the reputations of other occupants of the Oval Office. Third, Clinton supporters will give up defending Clinton’s behavior and claim that at least no law was broken. Or if a law was broken it’s not really important enough to punish the President in light of his progressive policies.

At the end, we are left with the distasteful notion that our only expectation of a president is that he remains in hyper-technical compliance with the law. Ethical or even respectable behavior is too much to expect. Or worse, we are saddled with the proposition that we can even ignore violations of the law if on balance we like a president. Relying on the phraseology of former Senator Patrick Moynihan, we will have “defined deviancy down.” But this is sad, old news. The latest pardon scandal is just one more example. Why get excited?

The only intriguing aspect of this latest episode is that since Bill Clinton is out of power, many of his former allies have miraculously transformed into his most vocal critics. Representatives Barney Frank and Henry Waxman, Senator Paul Welstone, and former President Jimmy Carter have all expressed chagrin and disappointment in Clinton’s pardons.

It is now clear that much of the defense of Clinton by Democrats during his term was his motivated by two feelings. The first is the principle that the enemy of my friend is my enemy. If Conservative Republicans were criticizing Clinton, there is a Pavlovian response among Democrats to defend Clinton. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the political prospects of Clinton were linked inextricably to Democrats in general. If Clinton went down in disgrace, all Democrats were likely to suffer in the polls. This was not an idle concern for Democrats. Political catastrophe was the punishment meted out to Republicans in the wake of the resignation of President Richard Nixon in disgrace. Guilt by association is not fair, but it often occurs in politics.

To some extent, Democrats have already paid a price for Clinton’s behavior. Al Gore lost the presidential election. With economic prosperity and relative peace abroad, but for the anvil of Clinton’s ethical problems dragging Gore down, Gore would have won by 10 percentage points. In the lament of Bob Herbert:

“[Clinton] has been president for eight years and the bottom line is this: For the first time in nearly half a century, the Republican Party controls the presidency and both houses of Congress.”

Perhaps part of the current venomousness by Democrats reserved for Clinton’s pardons represents pent up anger with Clinton. Democrats are exasperated at the Faustian bargain they accepted: Defend indefensible behavior by Clinton in order to rescue personal political fortunes. Now that Clinton’s political popularity is not so directly tied to other Democrats, their vision has considerably improved. No longer blinded by political ambition, it is now painfully clear to even highly partisan Democrats that the emperor has no clothes.

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