Frame Game


The pundits say the impeachment debate is over and the GOP lost. Wrong again.

Seconds after the Senate voted last Friday not to remove President Clinton from office, network producers stamped the words “ACQUITTED” and “NOT GUILTY” across the nation’s television screens. “This is a real slap at the House prosecutors,” declared CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer, echoing colleagues on other networks. “CLINTON ACQUITTED DECISIVELY,” announced the New York Times. Sunday’s talk show pundits scavenged the battlefield, pronouncing Republicans the losers.

Not so fast. Though the Senate has cast its votes, history’s verdict remains in doubt. The spin war over who was right or wrong doesn’t end with Clinton’s acquittal. And the early conventional wisdom–that the GOP has lost the fight–rests on three erroneous assumptions.

The first fallacy is that the debate over Clinton’s guilt is an up-or-down question. Actually, it’s a spectrum. Pundits, crippled by short memories, focus on the public’s opposition to Clinton’s impeachment and removal. But this was only the last stage of a gradually escalating scandal. The first question, unresolved until Clinton’s Aug. 17 confession, was whether he had done something immoral. The second question, debated throughout the Starr investigation and the House Judiciary Committee’s inquiry, was whether Clinton had done something illegal. The third question–whether he had done something impeachable–didn’t come to the fore until the House impeachment debate and the Senate trial.

It’s true that by the time the Republicans got to the third stage, they had lost the public. But on the first question, the polls remain squarely on their side. In a post-acquittal Los Angeles Times survey, only 24 percent of respondents say Clinton shares their moral values. Likewise, in a CNN poll, 57 percent express a negative opinion of him as a person (only 35 percent express a positive opinion), 59 percent say he has diminished the presidency’s stature, and 54 percent say he would “commit adultery if he knew he could get away with it.” Only 39 percent say the Senate’s verdict vindicates Clinton, 53 percent say it does not. These numbers show how Republicans can rewrite the scandal: by sliding the debate back across the spectrum to the moral question and portraying every vote to acquit Clinton as a vote to exonerate him.

This is why Democrats have scrambled to avoid a fight over Clinton’s morals and to assure the public that he’s been sufficiently castigated. They denounce his conduct at every opportunity. Having failed to pass a censure resolution Friday, they signed it anyway and put it in the Congressional Record. They denied that in acquitting Clinton they had voted to exonerate him morally. They even touted the 45 to 50 Republican votes to convict Clinton–which they had unanimously opposed–as suitable punishment. The votes for conviction “confirmed the humiliation of the president,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., observed approvingly. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., called the verdict “a rebuke” of Clinton and asserted that “this whole process … has been a level of punishment that was commensurate with the failures of the president to act appropriately.”

Several Democratic senators, assisted by the media, depicted the House prosecutors’ failure to win a majority vote in the Senate as a disgraceful setback for the GOP. This argument reflects a second fallacy: that the Republicans are out to get Clinton and that their vindication depends on his repudiation by Congress. In post-acquittal comments, some Republican senators did try to portray the Senate as united in its denunciation of the president. “We’re going to end up with two-thirds of the Senate either having voted to convict or to censure,” Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, told ABC. “And that, I think, sends a very strong, historic message to our children.” ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos seized on Bennett’s remark, “It’s the first Republican talking point you see: that two-thirds have voted either to convict or censure.”

But Stephanopoulos is missing half the story. There are two Republican camps. The pedagogical camp, led by Bennett and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wants to unite the country in condemnation of Clinton’s behavior, thereby resolving the impeachment issue. The political camp, led by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, wants to divide the country and keep the issue alive for the next election. The pedagogical Republicans want Clinton punished and repentant. The political Republicans want him unpunished and unrepentant, so the public will stay angry at him and his party. They’re not interested in using congressional Democrats to hurt Clinton. They’re interested in using Clinton to hurt congressional Democrats.

The political Republicans’ first objective was to kill the censure resolution. They argued, correctly, that Democrats were using it for “political cover.” But the GOP’s decision to kill it for the same reason was no less political. First DeLay blocked it in the House, then Gramm killed it in the Senate, insisting that senators render an all-or-nothing verdict. According to the New York Times, Gramm had warned his Republican colleagues that censure would muddle the partisan rift over impeachment, making the issue less potent in 2000. Friday evening, he got what he wanted. In a tone of disbelief, Schieffer told CBS viewers, “The trial ended without even a verbal reprimand from the Senate.”

Gramm’s allies proclaimed far and wide that Clinton had escaped untouched. “[It] looks as though, as the Democrats put it, a reckless, reprehensible, and irresponsible man will remain our president for the next two years,” said DeLay. “He won. He always wins,” agreed Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H. “Children now have the lesson that lying, cheating, and breaking the law are permissible,” moaned Christian Coalition leader Randy Tate. On Meet the Press, Republican strategist Mary Matalin accused the White House of “gloating.” On This Week, the chief House prosecutor, Henry Hyde, R-Ill., called Clinton’s acquittal another “skirmish in the ongoing culture war.” Former Vice President Dan Quayle signaled his intention to pound Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign for having defended Clinton’s character.

Democrats think they’re immune to this attack because they’ve got both ends of the spectrum covered: On the removal question, the polls are on Clinton’s side, and on the moral question, on which the polls are against Clinton, Democrats have acknowledged and condemned his misconduct. This is the third fallacy: Democrats have overlooked the legal question in the middle. On that question, they have failed to reconcile themselves to the polls. In a Gallup survey shortly before the Senate verdict, 73 percent of respondents said Clinton was guilty of perjury. A post-acquittal CBS poll finds that 78 percent think he’s guilty, though only 32 percent think his crimes merited expulsion from office. And in a post-acquittal Washington Post survey, 48 percent still say Clinton should “face criminal charges at some point.”

Yet every Democratic senator voted “not guilty” last Friday. A few have conceded Clinton’s guilt on the perjury charge, but the rest have either denied that the case was proved or have dodged the question by arguing that either way, the alleged crimes wouldn’t merit the president’s removal. And while their censure resolution may immunize them against the charge of moral indifference, it doesn’t protect them from the charge of indifference to Clinton’s apparent lawbreaking. Its language pointedly avoids accusing him of perjury or obstruction of justice.

Republicans smell their opportunity. At their press conference after the Senate verdict, several House prosecutors interrupted their sermons against “the polls” to point out where the public agreed with them. “We take great satisfaction … that [one poll] showed that 75 or 80 percent of the people … recognized that the president had committed falsehoods under oath,” said Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa. Rep. Jim Rogan, R-Calif., cited the same figure. The public, “by 80 percent or more, believes that he’s committed perjury,” chimed in Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. “The political cleansing that did not happen through the impeachment process” leaves Clinton “with a great and serious burden.”

Republican strategists will make Democrats carry that burden into the elections. On Fox News Sunday, when Democratic Party chairman Roy Romer ritually expressed his “disappointment in [Clinton’s] personal behavior,” GOP chairman Jim Nicholson shot back, “I find it interesting that Roy Romer would say [Democrats] are on the high ground, when 73 percent of the people say his president lied to them, and over half of them say he obstructed justice.” On Face the Nation, political consultant Ralph Reed went further, calling the scandal Al Gore’s “albatross” because “he acted as an advocate for a president who 73 percent of the American people believe committed perjury and only 24 percent think is honest and trustworthy.”

Pundits often say history is written by the winners. They think this maxim shows how clever and cynical they are. Actually, it’s half of a circular argument, and their failure to grasp this irony exposes their naiveté. Thirty-five years ago, Barry Goldwater was a landslide loser. Today he’s the father of the conservative movement. Winners, it turns out, are written by the historians. And the contest to write the history of Bill Clinton’s impeachment is just beginning.