Frame Game

The GOP’s Gamble

Why the Republicans will save Clinton by destroying themselves.

Ever since Bill Clinton ran for president, pundits have puzzled over his penchant for self-destruction. Yes, he’s the Comeback Kid, but only because he keeps getting himself into trouble from which he must come back. When things are going well, he finds a way to mess them up. You know the old joke: “Clinton’s approval ratings are so high he’s going to start dating again.”

One reason why Clinton can make these recoveries is that he has no monopoly on self-destruction. When he’s down, his enemies are up–and pretty soon, they’re the ones who feel ready to “start dating again.” Now that Clinton is in the deepest trouble of his presidency, Republicans in Congress think they’re on top of the world. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has spurned Democratic entreaties to offer Clinton a plea bargain short of impeachment. On with the hearings, says Gingrich.

The smartest course for Gingrich and the Republicans would be to bend over backward to show mercy, restraint, and fairness to Clinton. Most Americans would be impressed by their nonpartisanship, grateful to be spared further lurid disclosures, and increasingly open to voting Republican in future elections. Clinton would remain a cripple for the rest of his presidency.

Instead, the Republicans are forging ahead with impeachment. The charitable explanation is that they’re thinking short-term, hoping to energize their base and win extra congressional seats in the November elections. The less charitable explanation is that they’re just as hot to nail Clinton as he was to nail Monica Lewinsky. In the long term, this pursuit of Clinton will backfire for several reasons.

1) The Lewinsky investigation is out of ammo. On that subject, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr took his best punch in the report to Congress. The country has absorbed the worst information about Clinton’s behavior, yet he’s still standing. It’s hard to see what further information about the affair would bring him down.

2) The public’s anger at Clinton can’t last. It is already dissipating with the passage of time and the venting of outrage by Democrats on the Senate floor, pundits on television, and citizens in everyday conversation. People will always be somewhat angry at Clinton. But like heat, anger inevitably diffuses and loses its force.

3) Anger at sexual disclosures is growing. Post-video polls showing a six to nine point surge in Clinton’s job approval rating are a signal that people increasingly resent the pursuit of sexual details about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Even people who deplore Clinton’s behavior are getting sick of seeing it rehashed on television.

4) Anger at the impeachment process will grow. People may not care for Clinton, but they care even less for politicians who set aside the public’s business in order to focus on themselves. Now that the public has heard Starr’s information and has vented its disgust, the congressional impeachment inquiry is being reduced to an inside game. The more it consumes Congress’ attention and the nastier it gets, the angrier the public will become. And the party most likely to be blamed is the one that controls Congress.

5) Clinton is a great talker. He has yet to lose a talking match with the GOP. From a Republican standpoint, the beauty of the Lewinsky investigation is that Clinton has finally been forced to shut up, since nobody wanted to hear anything from him but apologies. But now that he has apologized and taken a beating, he is gradually recovering the right to open his mouth again. The effect of his videotaped testimony on public opinion shows what he can do. If the Republicans drag out the impeachment process and summon him for a verbal spanking before Congress, they might well be in for an Ollie North (for a reminder of North’s stellar performance before Congress, click here).

6) The Democratic base will awaken. The Republican strategy for November has been to let Democratic voters sleep through the election, allowing the Republican base to turn out and unseat vulnerable Democratic officeholders. So far, the Lewinsky scandal has smothered issues, such as HMOs, that might have drawn Democrats to the polls. But if Republicans push the impeachment inquiry to the point of antagonizing and mobilizing Democratic voters, the GOP’s low-turnout strategy will be ruined.

7) Starr will be investigated. He already faces a court fight over whether he has unlawfully leaked grand jury information to reporters. Now that the background material he sent to Congress has been released, the press has become interested in whether Linda Tripp doctored her tapes and whether Starr’s agents and prosecutors improperly detained Lewinsky or misrepresented their treatment of her in the Jan. 16 sting. The wise course for Republicans might be to accept a plea bargain under which neither Clinton’s behavior nor Starr’s will be further investigated with regard to the Lewinsky matter.

8) The media will turn on the GOP. For more than a month, Clinton’s debauchery and deceit have consumed journalists’ attention. To the extent the Republicans have held their fire, they have left Clinton alone in the arena to absorb the media’s scrutiny, mockery, and incredulity. By charging into the arena, the Republicans are offering the press an alternative political target. This is particularly unwise because after weeks of raking Clinton, reporters and pundits are inclined to demonstrate their “balance” by going after the GOP.

9) Should further revelations warrant impeachment, Congress may have lost the necessary credibility. Polls show most people aren’t willing to impeach Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, but they do think he’s been exposed as a liar and cover-up artist. Starr has yet to deliver his report on Whitewater, Filegate, and other nonsexual scandals, which no doubt will accuse Clinton of lying and covering up those matters as well. That report could deliver a knockout blow to Clinton. But Congress won’t be able to impeach him if the Republican majority has squandered its authority by overplaying an arguably lesser scandal that most people think boils down to lying about sex.

Every night, thousands of people walk into casinos and rack up big winnings. But casinos stay in business because few of those people have the prudence to walk out while they’re ahead. Instead, they keep playing until they’ve lost everything. It’s human nature. That’s how Bill Clinton squandered his presidency. And that’s how his enemies will save him.

Recent “Frame Games”

The Unjust War: Clinton’s moral theory, point by point, as expressed in his testimony. (posted Monday, Sept. 21, 1998)

Video Game: Was the GOP decision to air the Clinton tapes a gross miscalculation? (posted Friday, Sept. 18, 1998)