By William Saletan
The central battle in Congress this week was the debate in the House Judiciary Committee over whether to make public the videotape of President Clinton's Aug. 17 testimony before the Lewinsky grand jury. Once released, the video will certainly be aired on every TV network. Republicans pressed for the video's release, while Democrats resisted it. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans want to make the video public because it will hurt Clinton. But several warning signs suggest they may have miscalculated.
1) Polls. This week's CBS/New York Times poll indicated that, by a 2-to-1 margin, the public thought releasing the tape was unnecessary. This doesn't mean a majority felt strongly about the question. But it probably does mean that most people have heard all they want to about the affair, whether on grounds of taste, privacy, or due process. At some point, they're going to get irked at whoever keeps pushing this stuff in their face. That's why a few House Republicans have expressed misgivings about disclosing more of Starr's material.
2) Democratic spin. Democrats in Congress made clear in public remarks this week that they plan to spin the release of the video as another Republican ploy to hurt Clinton. According to the Washington Post, White House advisers admit that their strategy against impeachment proceedings "is to make any vote in the House appear as partisan as possible in hopes of creating a backlash against the Republicans by the American people." Regarding the release of the video, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said, "If [the Republicans] want to roll over us, they can. ... We'll just keep fighting and trying to engage the American public in this process."
3) Republican belligerence. Beneath their rational arguments for releasing the tape, the Republicans couldn't seem to shake their irrational instinct to fight the Democrats. According to the Post, when one participant in a House GOP meeting questioned the wisdom of releasing the video, Speaker Newt Gingrich responded with "an emphatic speech about the need to stand firm in the face of White House intimidation, prompting applause." A Post source said Gingrich "was making the larger point about the job we have ahead of us, about how ugly the White House is making it and about how partisan the Democrats are being." This is the same combative reflex that made Clinton's Aug. 17 Starra culpa such a disaster. Sometimes the best way to win is not to fight. Instead, Gingrich, like Clinton, has taken the bait.
4) Editorial opinion. The media, particularly newspaper editorial pages, have been the GOP's best ally in the campaign to expose and discredit Clinton. By pushing for the video's release, Republicans have picked a fight with that ally. Some editorialists particularly questioned why Congress would release the video rather than the transcript, except to humiliate Clinton. The Chicago Tribune, which had called for the president's resignation, protested: "Grand jury testimony in almost all instances is supposed to be secret, and in this case Clinton's is the only testimony that was recorded. No purpose would be served in releasing it other than to further embarrass Clinton." The Post agreed. The Los Angeles Times said it would be unfair of Congress to make Clinton's testimony public before issuing other material compiled by Starr.
5) Ad talk. Some Republican congressional candidates have already used the scandal in TV ads, and Democrats say more Republicans will use the Clinton video for the same purpose. "Republican candidates are clearly drooling in anticipation of the president's testimony in campaign ads," said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass. Cooler heads in the GOP worry that such ads won't help local Republican candidates and might even backfire.
6) What's on the tape. Republicans reportedly want the tape released because it shows Clinton fumbling for answers, exploiting technicalities, and erupting at his interrogators. But consider what else is on the tape. According to Starr's report, prosecutors asked Clinton: "You didn't do any of those three things with Monica Lewinsky ... including touching her breast, kissing her breast, touching her genitalia? ... If she says that you kissed her breasts, would she be lying? ... If Monica Lewinsky says that while you were in the Oval Office area you touched her genitalia, would she be lying?" Viewers may well find the questions more offensive than the answers.
7) Clinton's acquiescence. Reporters noted that Clinton offered surprisingly little resistance to the video's release. Republicans cited this as evidence that there was no good reason to keep the tape under wraps. On the contrary, Clinton's lack of resistance should have aroused Republican suspicions. When asked Wednesday whether he had given his testimony in the expectation that the video might later be released, he paused and considered his words. "I knew that the rules were against it, but I thought it would happen," he answered. In other words, Clinton knew that if the video were released, his surrogates could blast Starr for allegedly violating grand jury secrecy rules. But he put on a good show anyway.