Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Stanley Kutner reviews the Clinton memoir in the current issue of The Nation. The review is thoughtful and even-handed, but I have to take issue with this sentence about Republican reaction to the Monica Lewinsky revelations:

Censure never was an option for his enemies, for it meant his continuation in power.

That was true up to a point, but that's not the whole story.

As the impeachment process dragged on, Clinton's job approval rose and rose, and Democrats did surprisingly well in the 1998 midterm elections. It became clear that Clinton would never be convicted by the Senate -- but even then the Republican leadership wouldn't consider censure. In other words, given the choice of censuring Clinton or letting him go unpunished, the GOP chose no punishment.

Why? To put Clinton through a show trial, obviously. And to be able to say that Clinton was impeached and tried.

But clearly it was more than that -- clearly the Republicans wanted to walk away from the process with a grievance. They wanted an outcome that could be construed as unfair. If they couldn't drive Clinton from office in disgrace, either by motivating him to resign or convicting him in the Senate, they wanted to be able to say that he got away with it.

Although he never mentioned the Clinton impeachment, this was the kind of thing Tom Frank was talking about in his New York Times op-ed last week, "Failure Is Not an Option, It's Mandatory":

Losing is prima facie evidence that the basic conservative claim is true: that the country is run by liberals; that the world is unfair; that the majority is persecuted by a sinister elite. And that therefore you, my red-state friend, had better get out there and vote as if your civilization depended on it.

And it worked, too. I blame Nader for the 2000 election results, I blame the butterfly ballot and voter-roll purges in Florida, I blame the Supreme Court -- but I also think the refusal to censure Clinton was invaluable for the GOP. Clinton had been un-slick enough to be caught red-handed; escaping unpunished made him seem slick again. After the impeachment trail, even as his job approval remained high, his ratings on a personal level suffered. Al Gore bore the brunt of that in November 2000.

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