Frame Game

Clinton’s Final Escape

Why the GOP will spare his presidency.

Slate has brought back its Clintometer, and once again, skeptics are complaining that our estimate of President Clinton’s political peril is too low. (For the latest update, click here.) The new, gutless conventional wisdom is that Clinton’s fate is “uncertain.” Pundits observe grimly that he has refused to offer the necessary confession or contrition, that his impeachment by the House has put him within one step of expulsion, and that the resignation of incoming Speaker Bob Livingston over his newly disclosed adultery has turned up the pressure on Clinton to follow suit. But, once again, the pundits are wrong. The threat to Clinton is over. To understand how he will get out of his latest predicament, consider how he got into it.

1.Catharsis. The chief reason moderate congressional Republicans voted to impeach Clinton is that he got cocky after the election. Emboldened by what he perceived as a popular mandate to end the impeachment inquiry, he infuriated ambivalent lawmakers by refusing to admit that he had lied. He answered the House Judiciary Committee’s 81 questions with maddening evasions, and in remarks at the White House Dec. 11, when everyone was expecting a definitive apology, he failed to acknowledge his public lies, as opposed to his private sexual misconduct.

Many Republicans decided to impeach Clinton to send a message that the law must be obeyed and that the unrepentant president must be punished. “We must draw a line between right and wrong … so every kid in America can see it,” said one. Another said he was voting to impeach because Clinton was acting as though he were “above the law.” But if delivering that message was the motive for impeachment, then there’s no need to go further and expel Clinton from office. Republicans have joined the media in portraying his impeachment as a devastating, permanent scar on his presidency. In so doing, they have vented the outrage against him and have relieved the pressure to convict him. Already, Republican senators have stipulated that the House has scarred Clinton, that the Senate will never muster the 67 votes to convict him, and that a censure deal should be worked out instead.

2.Partisanship. The next reason Clinton was impeached is that the elections didn’t change the congressional math. There were still 228 Republicans in the House, enough to pass two articles of impeachment. But these party-line victories came at a price. The more Republicans pushed impeachment, the more Democrats resisted. A Democratic congressional aide admitted that many Democrats dislike Clinton, “but the Republicans have done a good job at uniting us–and driving us into his arms.” And the more tenuous the Republicans’ majority became, the more they resorted to behavior that was easily portrayed as partisan. The final straw was House GOP leaders’ suppression of a resolution of censure. White House aides promptly went on the Sunday talk shows to call the impeachment vote “partisan” and “unfair.”

The “partisanship” message has destroyed public faith in the legitimacy of Clinton’s impeachment. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in the latest New York Times poll say the GOP pursued the case for purely partisan reasons. Moreover, by failing to persuade more than a handful of Democrats to vote for impeachment, the GOP failed to trigger the kind of bipartisan collapse necessary to bring down a president. Democrats have gleefully used the party-line House vote to distinguish Clinton’s situation from that of President Nixon in 1974. And most important, a partisan split in Congress guarantees that Clinton can survive in the Senate, where Democrats have more than enough votes to save him.

3.Backlash. Pundits think another reason for Clinton’s impeachment was that Republicans ignored the polls. Actually, the polls conveyed two opposite threats. House Republicans faced a backlash from many independent and Democratic voters if they voted to impeach Clinton. But they also faced a backlash from conservative voters if they voted not to impeach him. (Several Republican consultants pointed out that the greater political threat to moderate House Republicans in 2000 was a primary challenge from pro-impeachment forces.) So the Republicans played it both ways. They escaped the first backlash by voting to impeach Clinton, and they counted on the Senate to spare them the second backlash by refusing to convict him.

Polls suggest that Clinton’s expulsion would shock and infuriate much of the electorate. By Sunday, only 26 percent of respondents in the Times poll expected the Senate to remove Clinton from office. In the latest Washington Post poll, only 33 percent said the Senate should remove him, whereas approximately 60 percent said they would be angry or dissatisfied if he were ousted. The Republicans aren’t stupid. They know that if they go all the way and depose Clinton, all hell will break loose on them in 2000. In voting to impeach him, they shot to wound, not to kill. Already, four House Republicans who voted for impeachment have written a letter asking the Senate to censure Clinton rather than remove him.

4.“Personal Destruction.” Realizing that they couldn’t get away with shooting Clinton fatally, Republicans sensibly deduced that the only other way to extinguish him was to make him commit suicide. They have pursued this strategy in two ways. The clever, premeditated way was to push the impeachment process so far forward that Clinton’s resignation became the quickest way out. The bizarre, unpremeditated way was to oust their own leaders and demand that Clinton take the same exit. First Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned, and Republicans held him up to Clinton as a model. Then incoming Speaker Bob Livingston resigned, declaring, “I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow.”

Both these tactics were ill-advised. Clinton’s impeachment makes it less likely than ever that he will resign. The point of resignation was to escape the humiliation of impeachment. Now that he has been humiliated, his only hope is to seek redemption in the Senate.

Furthermore, the GOP’s resignation-by-example argument has backfired. Clinton and congressional Democrats have hijacked Livingston’s resignation and turned it into a moral argument against Clinton’s resignation. “We must stop the politics of personal destruction,” Clinton declared at the White House after the impeachment vote. When reporters asked whether Clinton should resign, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart replied, “He believes it would be wrong to give in to the politics of personal destruction.”

Livingston’s resignation has also backfired by diverting public attention from perjury back to sex. For months, Clinton’s defenders had successfully dismissed the scandal as being “just about sex.” After the election, Clinton squandered this victory by continuing to deny that he had lied about the affair. The more he lied about his lies, the more people focused on his lying and forgot what the original lies were about.

But since Livingston’s sins were about sex, not perjury, his assertion that he was setting an “example” suggested that Clinton should resign not for lying but for adultery. Democrats persuasively called Livingston’s resignation “a surrender to a developing sexual McCarthyism,” portrayed Clinton as a fellow victim of this McCarthyism, and argued that Clinton should be spared expulsion as a first step toward ending the madness.

The “personal destruction” spin is a big winner. Four-fifths of respondents in the Post poll disapproved of the current scrutiny of politicians’ adultery. In the Times poll, 65 percent said Clinton should complete his term rather than resign. Even Republicans are susceptible to this spin. Since they blame Democrats for outing Livingston, and they don’t think his adultery should have ended his career, they agreed on the Sunday talk shows that “personal destruction” has run amok and that politicians shouldn’t be judged by their past indiscretions. Both these conclusions play to Clinton’s advantage.

The ultimate perverse consequence of Livingston’s resignation is that it has allowed Clinton to appear magnanimous. He has joined congressional Democrats in urging Livingston to reconsider his decision. Once upon a time, Republicans derided Clinton for fantasizing that in order to win forgiveness, he first had to find a way to forgive his enemies. Now they have made that fantasy come true.

Recent “Frame Games”

  • Wag the Doubt“: The debate over Clinton’s Iraq attack blazes new frontiers in cynicism. (posted Saturday, Dec. 19)
  • The ‘Coup’ Bomb“: William Saletan says Democrats could blow up the impeachment process by crying “coup.” (posted Wednesday, Dec. 16)