Smoke in Starr's Chamber
The government of the world's sole superpower came close to melting down, in the political equivalent of Three Mile Island. Not surprisingly, people want to know why, particularly because public opinion was so strongly opposed to impeachment. The usual answer is to point to the religious right. These groups are a factor. But the plain fact is that most of the heavyweights who fought this battle--the Wall Street Journal, Richard Mellon Scaife, The American Spectator, Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard--are clearly seeking kingdoms of this world.
So what explains the long-running meltdown? In a political system in which it is accepted practice to sell nights in a White House bedroom but consensual sex there can bring down the regime, there is another answer: money. From this standpoint, the high drama of impeachment looks like an extraordinary case of business as usual, with the primary issues being taxes, government regulation and the future of laissez-faire.
Bill Clinton, after all, captured the White House by relying on a powerful but very thin wedge of support within big business. Despite his noisy efforts to walk away from the legacy of the New Deal, the "New Democrat" Clinton never succeeded in expanding that base. Instead, most of American business opposed him from his earliest days in office, when he proposed a modest increase in taxes on Americans in the highest income brackets. With a straight face Republicans accused the Administration of waging "class war," while at the same time claiming (falsely) that the bill raised taxes on most working Americans.
That remarkably bitter clash prefigured the willingness of the GOP, including the so-called moderates, to threaten the Administration with historically unusual (some critics suggested unconstitutional) tactics of opposition. Though in many cases the Administration bent over backward to compromise and enlist industry's support, virtually every new measure it contemplated only fanned the flames of jihad. Despite major concessions to insurers and initial support from some industrial interests, the much-touted healthcare initiative failed in the face of one of the greatest and most expensive lobbying battles in American history. The President's effort to regulate firearms (as promised during the campaign) by passage of the Brady Bill drew bitter, lavishly financed attacks from the National Rifle Association and firearms manufacturers. New rules proposed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to control grazing by Western ranchers on federal lands at below-market rates ignited a firestorm. Oil companies opposed new taxes on energy, while seeking drilling rights in Alaskan wildlife sanctuaries. Most firms in oil, paper, chemicals, electric power and related industries were up in arms over a proposed treaty on global warming. Although the Administration revised the government's approach to regulation along lines many industries had been demanding, efforts to put across legislation for environmental cleanup went nowhere, despite some significant business support.
Though the Brady Bill and a compromise tax measure finally passed, a long series of defeats and scandals threw the White House into a tailspin. All the battles over taxes and regulation and the Administration's occasional talk--it was just talk, though the Democrats then controlled both houses of Congress--of raising the minimum wage sent enormous, gushing streams of money from anxious businesses to the Republican Party [see Ferguson, "G.O.P. $$$ Talked; Did Voters Listen?" December 26, 1994].
A rough calculation based on my sample of large concerns and investors for the 1996 election makes the point more starkly. Lumping together (most) firms in the pharmaceutical, insurance and healthcare sectors with those in branches of industry most directly affected by the environmental concerns the Administration was raising (paper, chemicals, etc.), and then adding enterprises in firearms and the retail and wholesale sectors (whose tumescent growth during recent merger waves has had major political implications, since such firms are usually acutely sensitive to questions of minimum wages and mandated benefits), one arrives at the very conservative estimate that by the middle of its first term, the New Democrat, self-consciously pro-business Clinton Administration was essentially at war with well over half of the largest investors in the United States. The sum total of opponents with less immediately drastic interests at stake, of course, would run far higher.
This calculation, however, leaves out one very special case: tobacco. Here, relations with the new Administration, initially tense, rapidly became apocalyptic. Because the logic of this shift is central to understanding the most critical single episode in the long impeachment drama and because the oceans of ink spilled by the press on Kenneth Starr's investigation have unaccountably submerged the heart of the matter, the facts about the tobacco industry's long war with the Clinton Administration require a careful look.