What Monica Did for Dubya

For many months now, the nation’s intellectuals have been assuring us that Bill Clinton’s romp with Monica Lewinsky, and subsequent lies under oath about same, wouldn’t hurt the Democrats in 2000. In the Feb. 28 and Mar. 6 issues of the New Republic, Sean Wilentz mocked the idea that “Clinton fatigue was killing Al Gore” and pronounced “Clinton fatigue” itself to be a “hoax” perpetrated by Beltway blowhards. Wilentz noted, correctly, that Clinton’s approval ratings were sky-high. He conceded that Clinton’s approval ratings dropped when the questions turned from job performance to personal character, “[b]ut poll data only matter insofar as they predict elections, and, when it comes to elections, Clinton’s high job-approval numbers are far more predictive than his low personal-approval ones.” More recently, in the Nov. 2 New York Review of Books, Joan Didion mocked “that narrow group of those who wrote and spoke and remained fixed in the belief that ‘the Clinton scandals’ constituted a weight that must be shed” by Gore. How bourgeois–how naive–how puritanical to think that the impeachment of Bill Clinton could have any harmful effect on Gore’s presidential campaign!

Now, of course, Gore and Bush are in a dead heat for an Electoral College majority, and though Gore seems to have won the popular vote, the Florida recount on which the election hinges will probably put Bush over the top. Have Monica’s fabled exertions put Bush in the White House? And is there anything Gore could have done about this?

Chatterbox thinks the answer to both questions is “yes.” He will concede at the outset that in an election this close, any factor, no matter how trivial, can be seen as decisive. Still, unlike many others, the Monica factor was one we saw coming. (By “we,” Chatterbox means us bumpkins in Washington.) Now we can see it in the exit poll data. “Clinton’s scandals appeared to have inflicted significant damage on Gore,” Thomas Edsall reports in the Nov. 8 Washington Post. According to Edsall, close to one-third of all voters who approved of Clinton’s job performance but disapproved of Clinton “as a person” voted for Bush. Edsall doesn’t say how many people this constitutes, but Chatterbox imagines it constitutes a lot. In Florida, the only state anyone cares about today, the “love Clinton’s job performance/hate Clinton’s character” cohort constituted 18 percent of all voters. (Click here to view Florida’s exit poll results.) Of this 18 percent, 37 percent voted for Bush and 4 percent voted for Nader. That’s 41 percent. Forty-one percent of 18 percent is 7 percent. So: Seven percent of the Florida electorate approved of the administration that Gore belonged to, but didn’t much like the guy who ran it and, probably as a consequence, withheld their votes from Gore. According to the first count, Gore lost Florida to Bush by a margin that’s well below 1 percent. Ergo, Monica cost Gore the presidency. (For Democrats, the only silver lining is that the sympathy Monica generated for Hillary Clinton, Wronged Wife, probably helped put Hillary in the Senate.)

On to Question 2: Is there anything Gore could have done to prevent this outcome? The standard reply is: “No, Clinton sure as hell didn’t ask his vice president’s permission before unzipping his fly!” But Chatterbox continues to believe, as he argued two years ago in the New Republic, that Gore ought to have told Clinton to resign during the summer of 1998. Would it have been futile? Chatterbox doesn’t believe so. Peter Baker’s book The Breach makes clear that after Joe Lieberman gave his famous outraged floor speech, it would have taken very little to mobilize support for resignation among Democrats in the Senate:

Senator Fritz Hollings was telling people around him that Clinton should get out now, and fellow Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein, Russ Feingold, and even the more liberal Patty Murray of Washington State were all entertaining similar thoughts. Lawrence Stein, the chief White House lobbyist on Capitol Hill, had been told that Senator Robert Byrd had already drafted a speech demanding Clinton’s resignation.

Harold Ickes, Clinton’s former deputy chief of staff (who by then was already out of the White House), “considered the current scandal a dire threat to the Democratic hold on the presidency,” and so

began sounding out key players within the party about resignation. This might be an honorable way out, he told them. If Clinton really was in danger of being removed by Congress, Ickes said, this would avoid a divisive ending and put Gore into the Oval Office early enough to let him repair the damage to the party and give him a fighting chance in 2000. … Clinton would probably never agree to step down voluntarily no matter how slim his chances were, but Ickes told people that the only possible way to convince his ex-boss to give up power would be to put together a coalition of interest groups and key senior members of Congress to go to him as a delegation and tell him that there was no way to hold the White House in 2000 unless he resigned. Gore himself might have to be enlisted [italics Chatterbox’s].

According to Baker, Ickes got talked out of it by AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney. “Let’s wait and see, Harold,” Sweeney is quoted saying. “Let’s see how this unfolds.”

Well, now we know. If Gore had allied himself with Ickes in trying to push Clinton out, would it have looked like a coup d’etat? Chatterbox doesn’t think so. Quite apart from Gore’s political self-interest, there were powerful ethical arguments for Clinton to go. Not to rehash all the articles of impeachment here, but Clinton was almost certainly guilty of perjury. Had the Senate felt like digging into the evidence, it stood a good chance of proving obstruction of justice, too. Would Gore have been tarred by his association with a president who was forced to resign? The example of Gerald Ford is instructive: What hurt him in 1976 wasn’t the fact that he had been Richard Nixon’s vice president, but that he was suspected of cutting a secret deal in advance to pardon Nixon (which, the evidence strongly suggests, he did). Decency probably would have dictated that Gore pardon Clinton, in advance, too, but had Gore made the deal explicit to the American people, Chatterbox thinks he would have gotten away with it. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but here it is Nov. 8 and, barring a real surprise, Gore won’t be the next president.