The "Coup" Bomb

How you look at things.
Dec. 17 1998 3:30 AM

The "Coup" Bomb

Clinton's ultimate weapon is to accuse the GOP of overthrowing democracy.

10000_10978_neubecker_clintondropped

By all accounts, the House of Representatives is about to impeach President Clinton. For the past year, he and his surrogates have deployed nearly every argument to halt this process. They have won over the public, according to polls, but they haven't persuaded enough members of the Republican congressional majority. The swing votes in Congress are turning against Clinton, pushing him to the brink of a Senate trial. But Clinton has a weapon of last resort in his rhetorical arsenal. He can accuse the GOP of staging a "coup."

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Advertisement

Going into the impeachment vote, the Republicans' message is that they're putting principle above politics. "A thermometer is not a terribly useful thing on matters of conscience and matters of principle," argued House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., on ABC's This Week. And what is the GOP's principle? "We congressmen were sent there to protect our Constitution, protect our rule of law," said Hyde. "And if we ignore that because it isn't popular, then I think we do real damage to our form of government. ... The Constitution means something. The rule of law means something. We're a government of laws and not of men."

Moreover, the Republicans hold out hope that they can parlay these principles into good politics by persuading the public that Clinton's actions merit impeachment. "It has been my hope that as this process plays itself out--the hearings and the debate and the argument--that this would have an instructive effect on the American people, and they might begin to pay attention as to why this is very serious, what this is all about, namely protecting the rule of law, and change their opinion," Hyde explained. "So we have to frame the issue as to whether the American people want to tolerate [perjury] in a chief executive--the one man who is sworn under the Constitution to take care that the laws are faithfully executed."

The coup argument reverses this logic. It parlays good politics into principle, by framing the ouster of a politically popular president as an affront to democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law. It combines three points Clinton and his surrogates have been making for months. The first is that the public opposes impeachment. The November elections were generally interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a popular verdict against impeachment, and today's New York Times and Washington Post polls underscore the same pattern. Sixty-four percent of Americans approve of Clinton's job performance, 61 percent don't want him removed from office, 64 percent don't want their representative to vote for impeachment, and 59 percent favor a censure resolution, which Republicans refuse to let the House vote on.

The second point is that the impeachment juggernaut has been driven exclusively by the GOP. Not a single Democrat voted for any of the four impeachment articles approved by the House Judiciary Committee, and only a handful of Democrats are expected to vote for impeachment on the House floor. In the Times poll, 62 percent of Americans said Republicans voted for impeachment not on the merits but mostly to hurt Clinton and the Democrats. In the Post poll, two-thirds said most members of Congress would cast their impeachment votes based on "partisan politics" rather than "the facts of the case."

The third point is that many of the legislators who will vote on impeachment are "lame ducks." Some were voted out of office in November. Others didn't seek re-election. The new Congress chosen by the voters will have five fewer Republicans. But the old Congress, including the old Republicans, will decide whether to impeach the president.

As impeachment draws nearer, the White House and congressional Democrats have been escalating their rhetoric along these lines. They have accused Republicans of trying to "defy the will of the people," "overturn the votes of the American people," and "undo the last election." "It's a sad day for America when extreme elements of one party seek to impeach the president on a party-line vote in a lame-duck Congress," White House Special Counsel Greg Craig declared Saturday. "Nothing about this process has been fair. Nothing about this process has been bipartisan. Nothing about this process has won the confidence of the American people."

The escalation culminated in an assertion by the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., that the impeachment process "does sometimes, to some people, begin to take on the appearance of a coup." In that explosive word, the Democrats' three criticisms of the process--unpopularity, partisanship, and the participation of lawmakers who lost their seats in the election--combined with the force of a thermonuclear reaction. Republicans reacted with anger. "This is the orderly process of the Constitution, not troops in the streets," said one member of the committee. "Mr. Gore is a man of very similar views to Mr. Clinton," said another, "so there's not going to be an abrupt change in the policies that the president of the United States advances."

The Republicans have reason to worry. Imagine the uproar when televisions across the country show the first Democrat rising on the House floor, in a thundering crescendo, to denounce the Republican "coup" against the president. Imagine the barrage of video clips on the nightly news showing Clinton, Hyde, and other figures in the drama being hounded by reporters as to whether a "coup" is in progress. Yes, the GOP can rebut this charge. But the charge is easy to understand, whereas the rebuttals are subtle, complicated, and technical. It's too bad Republicans have spent the past year mocking legal distinctions. That's all they'll have left when the bomb goes off.

Recent "Frame Games"