Impeachment Panic

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Sept. 11 1998 3:30 AM

Impeachment Panic

Why reports of Clinton's death are greatly exaggerated.

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To hear the pundits tell it, President Clinton is toast. On Sunday's political chat shows, they feasted on forecasts by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., that Clinton will face impeachment proceedings. Congressional Democrats appear to be "done with him," says a party consultant. "Clinton faces a rapid erosion of support that imperils his presidency," warns the New York Times. "It may be too late for this president," predicts Sam Donaldson. He's "trapped, checkmated, spiraling," writes Maureen Dowd.

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Despite these portents, Slate's "Clintometer," which measures the percentage chance that Clinton will be prematurely removed from office (i.e., resign or be impeached), has not risen above 23 percent since the first week of the scandal. How come? The short answer is that we're right and they're wrong. The pundits' stock market in Clinton's political survival is greatly oversold, as the result of a combination of factors.

1 Short selling. Facing re-election this November, congressional Democrats are playing up the possibility of impeachment in order to distance themselves from Clinton. They've been rushing to unload their stock in him out of fear that Kenneth Starr's report, now in Congress' hands but still unread, includes unforeseen bombshells. What sort of bombshells? Nobody knows. The point of unforeseen bombshells is that they're unforeseen. Slate's Clintometer is less easily impressed. We'll believe the bombshells when we see them.

2. Gravitas frenzy. Ever since Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., condemned Clinton's behavior in a Senate floor speech last Thursday, Democrats have been rushing to microphones to join in the collective rebuke. The pundits think these speeches signal a growing willingness to impeach Clinton. But this theory is too kind. The timing and wording of recent remarks by Clinton's congressional critics indicate that most of them are more interested in advertising their own morals than in condemning his. Likewise, they express more interest in immersing themselves in the "solemn duty" of weighing impeachment than in actually impeaching Clinton.

3 "Floodgate" flood. The press loves to construe political collapse as an objective, inexorable process. Pundits are calling Lieberman's speech the beginning of the end--in the words of George Will, "a consequential pebble" that will start "an avalanche." The avalanche of avalanche metaphors, flood of flood metaphors, and stampede of stampede metaphors are well underway. But in the end, they're just metaphors.

William Saletan William Saletan
Art Levine is a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report.

4. Regurgitory reflex. Democrats who are genuinely disgusted with Clinton want to express their revulsion and reassure the public that Congress doesn't condone his behavior. They regard their deliberations over Clinton's punishment as a national moral lesson. As Will put it, Lieberman's "denunciation of the president was of a piece with the denunciation of gangster rap music." But Congress doesn't have to impeach Clinton in order to convey its disapproval, any more than it has to ban gangsta rap. In fact, by venting its outrage in words today, Congress is relieving internal pressure to vent that outrage in impeachment tomorrow.

5 "Impeachment" fallacies. Lately, Democrats such as Moynihan and Moran have predicted or called for impeachment proceedings. From this, pundits have inferred that these Democrats favor impeachment. But impeachment proceedings are a trial, not a verdict. Likewise, based on Moynihan's affirmation that perjury in a civil case is an "impeachable offense," pundits have concluded that Moynihan thinks Clinton should be impeached. Moynihan has tried to clarify these distinctions, just as Lieberman tried to clarify that his moral denunciation of Clinton doesn't entail throwing Clinton out of office. But the press, which is interested only in pushing the envelope of the impeachment story, ignores these inconvenient caveats.

Together, these fears, frenzies, and fallacies have produced a political stock market panic wholly disproportionate to the two fundamental questions. Those questions are: 1) Once the moral outrage has been aired and the question before Congress has been distilled to whether the president should be forced from office for the first time in U.S. history, will 67 U.S. senators vote aye? 2) Will Clinton resign unless Congress is certain to impeach him? The least interesting and most salient fact about this scandal is that the answer to both those questions is still no.