See You in Court

How you look at things.
Dec. 31 1998 3:30 AM

See You in Court

Why Clinton's smart play is to feign a plea bargain and force a showdown.

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How can President Clinton secure a censure agreement and avert a Senate trial? That's the question pundits have naively debated since Clinton was impeached. The naiveté lies not in their answers but in the question. Who says Clinton prefers censure? In many ways, he'd be better off sabotaging the censure movement and polarizing the trial.

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1.The chicken game. The conventional wisdom says Clinton is afraid of being convicted. But is he the only one who fears that outcome? Although Republican politicians pooh-poohed the notion that they'd be voted out of office in 2000 for impeaching Clinton in 1998, they're less sanguine about their chances of being voted out for throwing him out of office in 1999. That's one reason why Senate Republicans have expressed far less enthusiasm for convicting Clinton than House Republicans showed in impeaching him. Why shouldn't he call the GOP's bluff?

2.Clinton's legacy. The conventional wisdom says Clinton must avert conviction in order to safeguard his legacy. But would censure serve his legacy better than a trial would? Arguably, impeachment has tarnished Clinton's presidency as gravely as he could have imagined. And many analysts think if he's forced to sign a bipartisan, self-abasing censure resolution, he'll be humiliated, broken, and unable to pass any part of his agenda in his final two years. Could conviction and removal be much worse than that? On this line of reasoning, Clinton has little left to lose in a trial and much to gain. Trial and acquittal might be his only hope of erasing the stain of impeachment.

3.The ordeal. The conventional wisdom says Clinton should waive his defense and avoid calling witnesses in order to shorten the trial and end his "ordeal." But whose ordeal is it? Republican senators have been saying for days that they don't want to antagonize the public by calling witnesses and dragging out the trial for months. Why not give them what they don't want? The House prosecution team includes Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., and other former federal prosecutors who are champing at the bit to call Monica Lewinsky and perhaps a dozen other witnesses. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, wants to drag "evidence" about other alleged Clinton sexual escapades into the trial. Why not call witnesses, inflame these incendiary accusers, and help them ignite the proceedings, perhaps torching their own party in the process?

4.Censure negotiations. The conventional wisdom says Clinton shouldn't polarize the Senate along partisan lines, because this would disrupt the movement toward a censure deal. It's hard enough to work out a deal already, pundits observe, given that Democrats want to soften the censure resolution while Republicans want to stiffen it. But why is this partisan rift over the terms of censure bad for Clinton? He doesn't need a censure deal to extinguish the threat of conviction. All he needs is a censure proposal that satisfies 34 Democrats enough to dissuade them from voting to convict him. If the proposal fails, thereby sparing Clinton any penalty whatsoever, so much the better.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

From this standpoint, a partisan impasse over the terms of censure is exactly what Clinton needs. This could be accomplished through various disputes, such as whether Clinton must confess to perjury before the grand jury (Republicans insist on it; Democrats warn that it may kill the deal) and whether he should be fined (many Republicans demand it; many Democrats say it's unfair or unconstitutional). The important thing is that Clinton's fingerprints mustn't be found on the sabotage. His best way to navigate this dilemma is by subtly encouraging Democrats to hold out for terms so soft that Republicans can't abide them.

5.The sequence. The conventional wisdom says if Clinton fails to strike a censure deal with Senate Democrats and Republicans, they might vote to convict him. But what if the two options are considered in reverse order? Already, several conservative Republican senators are demanding that the Senate complete the trial and vote on conviction before "negotiating" a censure deal. But once conviction has been voted down, why should Clinton negotiate? He can play it both ways: Cultivate the censure movement in order to persuade Democrats to vote against conviction, then sabotage censure by encouraging liberal and conservative zealots in the Senate to hold out for extreme terms. Admittedly, this scenario requires that Clinton ignore what's best for the country and that his enemies save him through reckless excess. But that has been the story of the year.

Recent "Frame Games"

  • "Clinton's Final Escape": Why the GOP will spare his presidency. (posted Wednesday, Dec. 23)
  • "Wag the Doubt": The debate over Clinton's Iraq attack blazes new frontiers in cynicism. (posted Saturday, Dec. 19)

Photograph of President Clinton by Zoraida Diaz.

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