What do Bill Clinton, Gray Davis and Rod Blagojevich have in common? Plenty. But the thing that binds them closest together is that they are all part of a troubling pattern in American political life. By this I mean the attempt to nullify elections through legal means.
The past decade has seen three major instances when politicians (or voters) tried to remove a high elected official from office before his term was complete: the 1998 Clinton impeachment, the 2003 California recall and the 2009 impeachment of Blagojevich. So far, only one of those attempts achieved its aims — Davis was indeed removed from office, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected to replace him. Still, impeachment or recall has only created more problems than it solves.
The Clinton impeachment is a case in point. Held up against Clinton's achievements as well as his missed opportunities, impeachment seems, in retrospect, like a gigantic waste of time. The investigation, congressional debate and Senate trial into whether or not Clinton committed high crimes and misdemeanors by lying to a grand jury about his relationship with a young female intern achieved nothing, led to Republican losses in the 1998 midterm elections, and did a lot to contribute to the vitriolic atmosphere that has characterized Washington ever since.
Then there's the recall. Davis was re-elected in 2002 with 47 percent of the vote. But he was unpopular and, as the recall efforts gained steam, he grew even more unpopular. So voters got what they wanted — no more Davis. But it would be hard to argue that the recall was a success. It did not solve California's woes. Nor did it fashion a pro-reform coalition in the state House or even among voters at large. Instead, it provided voters with the false sense that their problems could be solved if the Terminator was the governor instead of a bland functionary from the state Democratic machine.
Now, Illinois Democrats are playing the same cynical game. Blagojevich's December 2008 arrest on federal corruption charges embarrassed his party and put it in a bind. The Illinois Democrats could wait and see whether or not a jury convicts Blagojevich. But that would continue the embarrassment. Meanwhile, all of Blagojevich's actions, including his appointment of Barack Obama's Senate replacement, would be tainted.
The other option was to call for a special election to decide Obama's replacement. But this option carried the risk that the people of Illinois might elect a Republican. So the Illinois Democrats chose a two-pronged strategy: refuse to sign off on Blagojevich's nominee to succeed Obama, and begin impeachment proceedings against the embattled governor.
Hence, last week the Illinois state House voted 114-1 to impeach Blagojevich. The state Senate will hold a trial and vote on whether or not to remove him from office. This is by no means a done deal. Conviction requires a two-thirds Senate majority. And plenty of state senators may wonder why they are being asked to remove from office someone who has not been convicted of any crime.
The answer, of course, is that Blagojevich is unpopular and a political inconvenience. But neither rationale compels one to support his removal from office at this time. Even if Blagojevich is removed, how will that change the machine politics and pay-to-play system that brought him to prominence in the first place? When we impeach or recall, we too often confuse institutional failings with personal ones.
We elect officials to defined terms and hold regular elections for a reason: Elections are the ultimate check on governance and the standard of democratic legitimacy. What we sometimes forget is that both voters and politicians are bound to their choices. They may make the wrong choices — to err is human, after all. But that does not mean they ought to be tossed aside irregularly by politicians. To do so blurs the putative difference in our system between the rulers, the people, and the ruled—the people's elected representatives.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor at The Weekly Standard and author of The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine.