With a possible House impeachment vote staring it in the face, President Clinton's defense team finally rose to the occasion this week. In two days of hearings before the House Judiciary Committee, his lawyers made the most effective presentation of the president's case yet.
After weeks and weeks in which the White House and congressional Democrats talked about everything except the issues at hand - complaining about the process, attacking independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation - the hearings featured a discussion of the offenses for which Mr. Clinton stands accused.
Especially effective was the panel of former federal prosecutors, including Republican William Weld, ex-governor of Massachusetts, which concluded that the charges against the president would be too weak to hold up in a federal court, were he a common citizen going to trial. White House counsel Charles Ruff gave the strongest reply so far to the Starr allegations.
Committee chairman Henry Hyde maintained an atmosphere of fairness and general decorum, though committee Republicans and Democrats weren't particularly effective in their questioning. Too many went off on side matters and wasted time trying to score political points instead of focusing on the core issues: Did the president commit perjury in his deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case? Did he commit perjury during his August grand jury testimony? Did he obstruct justice, tamper with witnesses, and abuse his presidential power in covering up his relationship with Monica Lewinsky?
The hearings probably changed few minds on the partisan and polarized committee. The target of the president's legal team was moderate Republicans not on the committee, whom it hopes to persuade to vote against impeachment on the House floor. The White House came close to waiting too long, wrongly assuming the election results meant the matter would fade away.
The committee is considering four articles of impeachment: two on perjury grounds, one on abuse of power, and one on obstruction of justice. It must determine whether the president's actions rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors," as called for by the Constitution. The committee will likely approve at least one article, thus setting the scene for a full House vote next week. The outcome is uncertain, but approval would send the matter on to a Senate that will almost surely not convict. We'll state our views in detail before the historic House vote.