Poll Sitters

Aug. 20 1998 3:30 AM

Poll Sitters

Congressional leaders don't have an opinion on Clinton's speech--at least not until you do.

Here is my favorite Flytrap nugget from this morning's papers. The Washington Post writes:

Neither House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R), at home in Georgia, nor Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), in Florida for a vacation, commented on the speech. Also unavailable was House Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the pivotal figure in an impeachment inquiry. ... Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) was traveling in rural areas of South Dakota and unreachable throughout the day yesterday, his office said. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) was in Europe.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

Now even politicians are entitled to a private life, as President Clinton noted last night, and (as he didn't note) that includes the right to vacation in August. But does anyone else find it suspicious that on what will undoubtedly be one of the most important political days of their lives, so many of them were unreachable? (Daschle's "rural areas of South Dakota"--that's a good one! Don't they have phones in rural South Dakota? Didn't the New Deal take care of that?)

Contrast this with the pundits, who set new records yesterday for quantity and speedy delivery of blather. Clinton spoke for four minutes. Four minutes after he finished, dozens had already rendered judgment on the various networks. But pundits are paid to be interesting, not to be right. All they make is opinions. Politicians, by contrast, make decisions--in this case, their opinion on Clinton may turn into a decision about impeachment. So yesterday's silence from Gingrich, Lott, et al. reflected an admirable desire to think through the weighty issues that ...

No, I don't believe that. The Republican reticence can be partly attributed to the ancient rule of politics: Don't kill your enemy when he's committing suicide. (Gingrich even warned his GOP underlings to keep quiet.) But the main reason for silence from congressional leaders of both parties was the modern political practice of poll sitting. Don't express an opinion until you're sure it's shared by at least 51 percent of one of Mr. Gallup's random samples.

Until 10:06 p.m. last night, Flytrap was a complicated issue. The most basic facts were in dispute, and a political leader could plausibly decline to express an opinion. Now the basic facts are clear, and there are very few opinions to choose from. You believe that 1) adultery with a 22-year-old intern and lying both publicly and under oath about it are sufficient grounds for impeachment; or 2) these are insufficient, but evidence yet to come out about obstruction of justice might be sufficient; or (3) the whole thing should go away right now. You are permitted to weave variations on a few side issues--for example, was his apology groveling enough? But you are no longer permitted to say the basic question is unclear or you need more time to think. You've had seven months to think.

Say what you want about an impeachment zealot such as Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., but at least he had the courage to go on national television last night and argue for continuing investigation. A few bold Democrats such as Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts also rose quickly to Clinton's defense last night. But among Congress' leaders, it seems, there was no reason to get ahead of the polls.

Today, Gingrich, Lott, Gephardt, and Hyde broke their silence with some of the most mealy-mouthed statements you could ever hope to hear. But suppose that a week or a month from now it becomes clear that the voters have turned against Bill Clinton and impeachment is a salable proposition. At that point you can expect to hear ringing moral judgments from Gingrich and Lott, which they could just as easily assert today if they 1) really believed this stuff and 2) had the guts. And if it becomes clear that voters side with Clinton, Gephardt and the congressional Democrats will turn up the self-righteous anger.

And if the polls are ambiguous, the assertion of timeless values by both sides will just have to wait.

The White House Web site's theme of the week: "Supporting America's Families in Times of Distress."

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