The week's big news, and how's it's being spun.
Dec. 9 1998 3:30 AM



Frame Game Will Clinton Survive?

By William Saletan

Now that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr has submitted his report to Congress and the White House has issued its rebuttals, the facts are on the table, and the war over whether to impeach Clinton comes down to spin. Here are eight themes that will determine Clinton's fate, depending on how they play out in the coming weeks.

1)Regurgitant reflex. Just about everyone finds at least some aspect of Clinton's behavior disgusting: the adultery, the sexual exploitation of an adoring (or even scheming) young intern, the perjury, the emphatic public lying. You wouldn't want this guy teaching in your daughter's high school, so why let him keep the most important job in the country? What kind of message does that send about the importance of morality and the law?

Prognosis: Over time, this will dissipate. It will collide with the constitutional gravity of the impeachment process and won't measure up.

2) Hairsplitting. First, Clinton denied having sex with Monica Lewinsky. When that spin collapsed, he admitted to sex but failed to apologize. When that spin collapsed, he apologized but denied perjury. But to deny perjury, he must deny that he had "sexual relations" with Lewinsky and that he remembered being alone with her. This requires Clinton's surrogates to sustain a delicate paradox: On the one hand they must argue that Clinton "misled" Paula Jones' lawyers but didn't commit perjury. But they must also maintain, as several Clinton spinners put it in Sunday's TV shows, that Clinton "does not want legal language" to "interfere with his message to the American people" that "what he did was wrong." In short, the law is separate from morality. More than that, the law is silly. Clinton's defense against perjury is just "a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo," scoffed White House Deputy Chief of Staff John Podesta on CNN's Late Edition. Clinton is above such quibbles. He hasn't even read the White House rebuttal to Starr's report, said Podesta.

Prognosis: Clinton's confession and apologies relieve some of the absurdity of his denial of sexual relations. After all, his spinners seem to suggest, now that he has essentially admitted to having lied to everyone about the affair and is willing to be punished for it, what's the point of prosecuting him for a specific, technical kind of lying?

Nevertheless the hairsplitting defense will soon collapse for two reasons. One is that Clinton will remain on the defensive for as long as he continues to deny the obvious. On the Sunday shows, interviewers relentlessly hounded his surrogates about the absurdity of his "sexual relations" denial, stifling the pro-Clinton messages the surrogates were supposed to deliver. As long as Clinton resists, his interrogators will continue to attack. He needs to adopt the civil-disobedience tactic of not fighting back. His initial confession and subsequent apologies are two steps in the right direction, but evidently, they're not quite enough.

This isn't just a PR problem for Clinton's TV spinners. It's hurting Clinton's relationships with Democrats in Congress who will directly decide his fate. They can't explain to their constituents why Clinton's behavior wasn't sex--any more than he can. And if they can't defend this line, they won't accept it. That's why the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate are openly prodding Clinton to drop it.

3) Salaciousness. In his Aug. 17 White House speech about the affair, Clinton overreached by attacking Starr. Four weeks later, Starr returned the favor by overreaching in his report to Congress. Starr's minor offense was to dilute his case and insult everyone's intelligence by portraying Clinton's assertion of White House privileges as an abuse of power. His major offense, however, was to fill the report with gratuitous, lurid details about Clinton's sexual activities with Lewinsky.

Prognosis: Clinton's defenders pounced on Starr's mistake immediately and have been exploiting it brilliantly. They have made "salacious" a household word. The sexual details look particularly bad in light of Starr's decision not to include anything about the nonsexual scandals (Whitewater, Filegate, etc.) he was originally appointed to investigate. The sexual focus also helps the White House portray Clinton as Starr's victim. And on television, it invites interviewers to subject congressional Republicans and other Starr allies to the relentless hounding that Clinton's allies have to endure on the indefensible "sexual relations" denial.

4) Effectiveness. Even if Clinton's misbehavior doesn't merit impeachment, sentiment has grown in Congress and in the commentariat that he can no longer do his job because he has forfeited the respect necessary to be taken seriously.

Prognosis: On the one hand, it's true that Clinton has lost so much credibility that his remaining months and/or years might be pointless. On the other hand, this argument for impeachment is disturbingly circular, since theoretically, the media and the opposition party could ridicule any president and then demand his removal on the grounds that he has become an object of ridicule.

Clinton's best bet is to make the question moot by taking measures that demonstrate his effectiveness. His latest initiative to rally the world's economic powers against global recession is a good start.

5) Suffering and forgiveness. Most people want Clinton to pay for his misdeeds in some way. To persuade them that the ultimate punishment (impeachment) is unnecessary, Clinton needs to show them that 1) he's punishing himself; 2) he's been punished enough by Starr, the media, and Hillary; and 3) he's atoning for his sins.

Prognosis: Clinton has made enormous headway on this front. His latest apology, at the Sept. 11 prayer breakfast, finally succeeded in convincing many pundits (rightly or wrongly) that he's sincerely contrite. His surrogates now methodically emphasize on television that he's suffering proper shame as well as the improper humiliation allegedly inflicted by Starr. Democrats in Congress are beginning to speak to the media sympathetically of Clinton's pain and atonement and the compassionate forgiveness he deserves. Meanwhile, the media are conveying a willingness to view Clinton's dalliances as a clinical disorder that might be treatable without impairing his ability to do his job.

6) Watergate analogies. Starr included these in his report, and congressional Republicans have indulged in plenty of their own. From a strategic point of view, these analogies are profoundly unwise. The more Clinton is compared to Nixon, the pettier his crimes appear. And the contrast plays right into the White House argument that Clinton's misbehavior is "just about sex." If Clinton is forced to admit to perjury in addition to naughty sex, the Watergate comparison will become even more crucial. Clinton's scandal isn't about the abuse of official power, Podesta argued on Late Edition. "It's about sex, and it's about trying to keep a secret."

7) Impeachment backlash. Although most of the public still opposes impeachment, only a minority cares deeply about keeping Clinton in office. But if Clinton is impeached without obvious cause, many of his supporters will regard the ouster as a coup by his political enemies. In particular, black voters overwhelmingly support Clinton, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus have already taken the lead in challenging the legitimacy of the Starr investigation and the Republican-controlled impeachment process.

Prognosis: As Congress advances toward the possibility of removing Clinton, growing awareness of the national unrest this might cause will become a serious deterrent.

8) Compromise. As the scandal and talk of crisis wear on, more and more pundits and politicians will cry out for a compromise to end the strife. The likely middle ground has shifted from reprimand to censure to "censure plus."


Prognosis: The one thing we can count on for certain is that Clinton won't accept the ultimate punishment, impeachment. Therefore, if the outcome is negotiated, he won't be impeached. But he may end up being forced 1) to admit to perjury and 2) to pay a hefty fine for dragging out the Lewinsky investigation. This might leave everyone equally unhappy--which is probably the best outcome we can hope for.