The Nixon Analogy

How you look at things.
Oct. 3 1998 3:30 AM

The Nixon Analogy

Why the Flytrap-Watergate comparison will backfire.

Should President Clinton be treated just like President Nixon? This week Republicans argued that he should. Unfortunately, they failed to get their message straight. Two different Republican camps advanced the Watergate analogy in two different ways for two different purposes. One camp's case is more persuasive, but the other's is more exciting. And Democrats are exploiting the difference.

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The Process Camp, led by House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., is using the Watergate analogy to justify procedural rules for the Clinton impeachment inquiry. Wednesday Hyde released an inquiry resolution, which, he noted, "follows the Watergate resolution, word for word." In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., Hyde proposed that "the model for impeachment" should be "the one that you helped to write in 1974." Hyde thinks that by following the rules of the Watergate process, which were approved and administered by Democrats, he can force Democrats to admit he's conducting the Clinton inquiry fairly.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The more zealous Substance Camp, led by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is using the Watergate analogy to suggest not just that the Clinton impeachment process should mirror the Nixon impeachment process but also that Clinton's offenses are as serious as Nixon's. This camp hopes constant comparisons between Watergate and the Lewinsky cover-up will cause the former's gravity to rub off on the latter. If Clinton has done "what Nixon did," DeLay argued on ABC last weekend, "that is impeachable."

Democrats can't persuasively rebut the process analogy. (In 1974, for example, Conyers opposed a preordained time limit on the Watergate probe. How can Conyers now demand such a limit on the Lewinsky probe?) So instead, they're conflating it with the substance analogy. Wednesday, when asked about the Watergate inquiry rules, Conyers replied, "The notion that this investigation should be open-ended like Watergate ... is preposterous," because "Watergate involved a wholesale corruption of government which extended through the FBI, the CIA and other federal agencies. This matter involves the concealing of a private affair."

Likewise, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry argued, "The facts of Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky matter are entirely different, and I think most Americans would readily and quickly agree to that, which is why I went through a little reminder about the enormity of the crimes committed during the period of Watergate." According to the New York Times, McCurry arrived "armed for a question about comparisons to Watergate. He got it, and almost ran out of breath as he rattled off a lengthy list of the accusations against Nixon, including that he 'misused the FBI, [and] the Secret Service, to conduct unlawful wiretapping of American citizens [and] maintained a secret unit in the White House to violate the constitutional rights of citizens.' After pausing slightly for air, McCurry added indignantly, 'So there's no parallel whatsoever.' "

Once the process analogy is transformed into the substance analogy, it loses its force. Yes, substantive analogies can be drawn between Nixon's offenses and Clinton's, e.g., between the Enemies List and the FBI files or between the Plumbers and the Bimbo Eruption Team. But the differences are more striking. In the Lewinsky case--the only case presently before Congress--the president's objective was sex, not power. The underlying sins were more personal than political. And the secret tapes and wires were arranged not by the president but by his enemies and investigators.

The irony is that it would have been so much easier to deem Clinton's offenses impeachable on their own terms. He has plainly lied under oath, for example. If Congress determines that this constituted perjury (which is somewhat more technical), then Clinton has committed a felony. Republicans could simply argue that no felon should be allowed to remain president. Instead, they're holding Clinton to the impossibly high standard of corruption set by Nixon. If, as "Henry Hyde recently pledged to do," the House "applies the standard that emerged in 1974, it will decide that the charges against Clinton do not fall under the articles of impeachment," argued two Watergate-era Democratic congressmen in a Times op-ed Thursday. They're right: Clinton's offenses aren't what the Watergate committee meant by an impeachable offense. But that comparison isn't what Hyde meant by the Watergate rules, either.

Recent "Frame Games"

"Just Say No": Why the Democrats' best strategy is to play defense. (posted Wednesday, Sept. 30, 1998)

"The GOP's Gamble": Why the Republicans will save Clinton by destroying themselves. (posted Friday, Sept. 25, 1998)