Just Say No

How you look at things.
Oct. 1 1998 3:30 AM

Just Say No

Why the Democrats' best strategy is to play defense.

Every meeting of the House Judiciary Committee about the Lewinsky impeachment inquiry ends with the same bizarre ritual. The Democrats go to the nearest microphone, call the committee's conduct of the inquiry unfair, and accuse the Republicans of partisan warfare. Then the Republicans step before the same microphone, deny that the inquiry is partisan, and insist that everyone is getting along. "No, we're not," say the Democrats. "Yes, we are," snap the Republicans.

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It's not hard to figure out who's going to win this fight. Politics, like litigation and sports, is stacked in favor of the defense. In football, it's far easier to disrupt an 80 yard drive than it is to sustain it. In soccer, one good tackle ruins a brilliant sequence of passes. In a criminal trial, one slick cross-examination of a state's witness can plant enough doubt to hang the jury. And in Congress, every eruption of "partisanship" or "unfairness," whether real or manufactured, bleeds away the institutional credibility necessary to impeach the president.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

The conservatives who dominate today's GOP don't like to view politics this way. Cursed with a combination of irrational idealism and irrational narcissism, they insist on interpreting public opinion and behavior in ideological terms. On ABC's This Week a few days ago, Weekly Standard Editor and Publisher Bill Kristol argued that the politics of the impeachment inquiry "reminds me of 1994. It was four years ago on this date that the Republicans announced the Contract With America, and the consensus in Washington was ... Republicans [had] overreached." Critics of the GOP were mistaken then and are mistaken now, Kristol suggested. "The underlying tide, I think, is anti-Clinton."

Of course, hardly anyone who voted in 1994 knew what was in the Contract With America. The contract was designed not to win the election but to spin it, by inflating an essentially negative referendum on Clinton and his health care reform plan into an affirmative referendum on the conservative agenda. The public wasn't endorsing conservatism when it threw out the Democrats in 1994, any more than it was endorsing liberalism when it turned against the GOP's proposals for Medicare reform in 1995 and 1996. It was just saying no.

In recent polls, Americans have essentially said no to the question "Should Clinton's behavior be tolerated?" But once Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr released his oversexed report and Republicans in Congress began parlaying it into impeachment proceedings, the question changed to "Should he be impeached?" Again, Americans said no--not because they love Clinton or his agenda, but because they don't trust the impeachment process any more than they trust national health insurance. Democrats in Congress are deliberately and successfully exacerbating that mistrust.

Some Republicans understand this strategic disadvantage but mistakenly think that House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the problem. They propose that House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, replace Gingrich as the GOP's high profile "bad cop." But no matter who becomes the "bad cop," Democrats will attack him, and the media, always hungry for conflict, will flock to the fight. Other Republicans console themselves by noting that some Democrats will vote for a formal impeachment inquiry. They're missing the point: The longer the inquiry drags on, the more it will invite resentment, acrimony, and backlash. Conversely, some Democrats worry that by accusing Gingrich and the GOP of bias, Clinton's allies are making a nonimpeachment deal more difficult. But who says Clinton really wants a deal? From a purely political standpoint, now that he's confident he won't be convicted in the Senate, his best move might be to let the GOP antagonize more and more voters by marching all the way to an impeachment vote.

Recognizing the futility of arguing with the Democrats, House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., has begun to yield to their demands. He agreed to send a bipartisan staff delegation to inspect documents Starr withheld from Congress (which Democrats suspect may include exculpatory evidence), ordered a hearing to address the Democrats' query on what constitutes an impeachable offense, and endorsed the idea of giving the Democrats subpoena power. The Democrats "would like to make process, procedure ... the issue," Hyde observed. "We are doing our level best to be credible. If we aren't credible, what we do amounts to nothing."

Hyde's accommodations are noble but futile. The Democrats can always find further "unfairness" and "partisanship" to complain about. No sooner had Hyde announced his concessions than Democrats amended their objections: The hearing on impeachable offenses should have been at the committee level, they argued, and the delegation to examine Starr's records should include committee members themselves, not just staff. "These are concessions, no question," admitted Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "But it's still not bipartisanship."

The Democrats will be satisfied only if the inquiry is transformed so thoroughly that the GOP no longer stands to gain from it. Democrats would like to investigate Linda Tripp's encouragement of the alleged quid pro quo in which Monica Lewinsky supposedly secured help in her job search in exchange for submitting a false affidavit denying her affair with Clinton. They'd like to investigate Tripp's taping of Lewinsky as well as Starr's use of those tapes to launch his investigation. A federal grand jury recently questioned conservative mogul Richard Mellon Scaife in connection with alleged witness tampering by Clinton's enemies in Starr's Whitewater investigation. Democrats won't shut up about partisanship unless Republicans agree to include those matters in the inquiry. And at that point, from a Republican standpoint, the inquiry isn't worth it.

So how do the Republicans break through the Democrats' defense and carry the ball into the end zone? The cynical answer is: They don't. They punt or fumble, and the Democrats carry the ball the other way. Indeed, the Democratic counteroffensive has already begun. Bill and Hillary Clinton are on the campaign trail, accusing Republicans of substituting partisan impeachment proceedings for legislation to address the nation's ills. Clinton ally James Carville is conferring with liberal activists about a nationwide ad campaign to bolster Clinton and denounce Republicans for bogging down Congress in "scandal, cynicism, and partisanship." Eventually, the Democrats will overreach again, and the public, ever wary, will turn against them. It's not about ideology. It's about cautiousness.

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