As the House of Representatives moved toward a historic decision–delayed by the bombing of Iraq–on whether to impeach the President, so-called moderate Republicans lamented that if only the President admitted that he had lied or perjured himself, they would vote against impeachment. In other words, if he admitted to the crime, he could go free. If he continued to deny criminality (even while taking responsibility for his irresponsible behavior) he would be punished.

Since contrition or confession has nothing to do with whether the President committed high crimes or misdemeanors, it appears that rites rather than rights hold the key to recent events. Conventional wisdom usually divides itself into two fundamental schools of political analysis: School A (for example, Marxists) explains events primarily by external or social causes and forces; School B (for example, Freudians) sees events primarily as an expression of internal or psychological factors. But there is a third school, which explains matters regarded as having a high moral content–like Prohibition or civil rights and civil liberties–in terms of symbolic politics.

The Democrats’ call for censure of Bill Clinton is an instance of such symbolic politics. A more telling one is the Republicans’ call for the President to confess his sins. Although it has nothing to do with the constitutional definition of an impeachable offense, it has everything to do with what sociologist Harold Garfinkel has identified as a critical element in the traditional degradation ceremony. The goal of a degradation ceremony–like the one to which HUAC subjected accused Communists–is to stigmatize its target, to strip him of his status. As Garfinkel puts it, the public through its agent, the denouncer (read special prosecutor or House committee), in effect delivers a curse: “I call upon all men to bear witness that he [the denounced person] is not as he appears but is otherwise and in essence of a lower species.” In this formulation the job of the Starr investigation and the Judiciary Committee’s hearings was simply to stigmatize Bill Clinton.

David Broder, Tim Russert, George Will and the rest of “the Sabbath gasbags” (as Calvin Trillin has dubbed them) have given us tens of thousands of words on The Current Crisis. But it will take a cultural anthropologist to explain the intensity with which the Southern Republican rump of the Judiciary Committee pursued this impeachment of a Southern President; or why even a reform Republican like Christopher Shays wrapped himself in pietistic confess-or-be-damned robes.

Right now, the outcome of the impeachment effort is uncertain, made more complicated by the bombing decision. Whatever happens, however, the fact remains that the Clinton impeachment campaign represents a massive abuse of Congressional power, defying all rational interpretation of the constitutional blueprint. Clinton’s removal, whether by resignation or impeachment, would amount to a victory for antidemocratic forces. A partisan majority is showing that it has the power to overturn the results of elections and oust a President. We must say again that not one of the President’s offenses meets any standard for impeachment. The substance of the charges remains, in the words of Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, “Did the President touch her here or did he not touch her here?”

The standards that are being set now will be looked to as precedent during the next–and there is bound to be a next–impeachment proceeding. Members of Congress will have to answer to history for those standards, and for the partisanship and vindictiveness that have guided their actions.