Did "Hyperpartisan" Era Really Begin With Clinton's Impeachment?

Peter Baker's front-page story for the Sunday Week in Review, "The Lasting Effects of Political Poison," tried to diagnose the source of today's political polarization, andlocated apopular liberal cause. Patient Zero ofwhat Baker called the"hyperpartisan age" is, in Baker's telling, President Bill Clinton, victim of impeachment by a Republican Congress in 1998 for mere "prevarications about sex" (as opposed to his perjury).

The text box to Baker's story read: "Since 1998, little taste for impeachment, or for consensus." But did the age of nasty partisanshipreally begin with Republicans in 1998?

Ten years ago this week, Bill Clinton became the first elected president ever impeached by the House of Representatives, the culmination of a sex-and-lies scandal that consumed the nation and fractured the political system. Although he was eventually acquitted by the Senate, the scars run deep even as veterans of that showdown return to power under a new president promising to repair the breach that still divides Washington.

As key members of Mr. Clinton's defense a decade ago, Mr. Podesta, his chief of staff; Mr. Emanuel, his senior adviser; and Mr. Craig, his special counsel, bring the lessons of that searing moment to the table as they now serve in President-elect Barack Obama's inner circle. They learned the imperatives of moving quickly, closing ranks, controlling information and never conceding an inch when the president faces a threat, strategies employed with varying degrees of effectiveness back then.

Those instincts took over again last week with the furor surrounding the alleged scheme by the governor of Illinois to sell Mr. Obama's old Senate seat for personal advantage, perhaps a cabinet position or other favors from the incoming president. Mr. Podesta, now Mr. Obama's transition co-chairman; Mr. Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff; and Mr. Craig, tapped to become White House counsel, knew the playbook.


Indeed, except for brief interludes, Washington in the last decade has been governed by a climate of anger and animosity, a modern-day tribalism pitting faction against faction that some trace to the days of the impeachment.

Conservatives would object to omissions in Baker's timeline by arguing that the Democrats fired first. In their view, the bloody battles didn't begin in 1998 but in 1987, during the vicious Supreme Court hearings for Reagan's failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, followed in 1991 by hearings for the first President Bush's Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.Both of those conservatives wereattacked in revoltingly personal terms by the Democratic left. Baker also ignores the attacks on George W. Bush as a fascist, which began after his close electoral college win in 2000 (before 9-11).

Baker also forwarded the convenient Democratic argument that the Republican-instigated impeachment proceedings took the government's eyes off Al Qaeda, although there's no evidence that the Clinton administration ever had its eye on Al Qaeda in the first place (witness its desultory response to the deadly bombing of the U.S. Navy Destroyer the USS Cole in Yemen, in which 17 U.S. solders were killed).

Former Representative James E. Rogan, Republican of California, who lost re-election, said he had no regrets. "I did what you're supposed to do in politics," he said. "I went home, made the best case I could make for what I did to my constituents and they shellacked me." But he added: "If the question is, knowing what I know now would I have done everything differently, the answer is no. I did my duty as I saw it."

With the passage of time, others have come to a different conclusion. "At the end of the day, the Republicans were hurt more," said Mark Corallo, an aide to Mr. Livingston at the time and later a Justice Department spokesman under President Bush. "We became the party of the moral jihad. I'm as guilty as anyone. We all got wrapped up in it."

Some blame the fixation on impeachment for distracting attention away from larger issues, like the looming threat of Al Qaeda. This was, after all, a battle waged in the luxury of peace and prosperity. Certainly today, in an era of collapsing banks and teetering automakers, terrorist cells and roadside bombs, Mr. Clinton's prevarications about sex seem less profound.