A Senate Bestiary

A Senate Bestiary

A Senate Bestiary

Politics and policy.
Jan. 9 1999 3:30 AM

A Senate Bestiary

Who's doing what about the trial and why.

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The assumption of bad faith on the part of one's rivals is a hallowed tradition of politics, and Flytrap has honored it. Democrats have tended to assume that Republicans are pursuing the president simply out of loathing. Republicans have tended to assume that Democrats are defending him simply out of political expediency. The House, by impeaching Clinton on a nearly party-line vote, obligingly fulfilled those expectations.

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But the pregame of the Senate trial is already confusing those assumptions. Some conservatives are behaving like moderates, some moderates like conservatives, Democrats like Republicans, and Republicans like Democrats. Why?

What follows is a taxonomy of the Senate, an attempt to classify senators and explain why they're doing what they're doing.

The Controller: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. The three early conclusions drawn about Lott's efforts to broker a deal were that the majority leader is too conservative, too weak, or both. How else to explain Lott's weak push of the Gorton-Lieberman plan to cut short the trial by holding an early test vote on whether the charges justify removing Clinton from office, and his concessions to right-wingers who wanted an expansive trial?

But these conclusions don't do justice to his deft handling of an impossible position. Lott's conservative principles are at odds with the other two defining elements of his personality: political pragmatism and an almost pathological love of efficiency. Much as Lott's principles tell him to punish President Clinton, and much as he would love to satisfy conservative colleagues, Lott knows that the president won't be convicted and that a long trial will unhinge his Senate, disrupt this year's business, and endanger Republican candidates in 2000.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Lott has actually accomplished more than most expected, a fact that even Democratic Senate staffers admit privately. He has assuaged conservatives by giving up on Gorton-Lieberman. In the process, he has paved the way for a trial that will be longer--a month, apparently--but still limited. Which is essentially what Lott has wanted all along.

Blocking that limited trial are the Unbowed Conservatives. The most vocal member of this species is Oklahoma's James Inhofe. Others include Bob Smith (New Hampshire), Gordon Smith (Oregon), Sam Brownback (Kansas), and Don Nickles (Oklahoma). The Unbowed, who tend to be quite religious, have never lost their outrage about Clinton's moral failings and crimes. They sincerely believe he is unfit to hold office and that the Constitution requires a full trial--damage to the Senate and the GOP be damned! The Unbowed can afford their principles because of their other notable quality: None faces re-election in 2000. Most also live in states where torturing Clinton is a popular spectator sport. The party as a whole may suffer from a long trial, but they won't.

The ranks of Unbowed Conservatives would be thicker but for the Campaigning Conservatives. By temperament and principle, they agree with everything the Unbowed Conservatives say. But political necessity beckons. All face tough 2000 races in states where Clinton is quite popular. They know that a prolonged, cringe-inducing Senate trial could be disastrous for their prospects. The Campaigning Conservatives walk a delicate line: They want to inflict the maximum possible punishment on Clinton in the minimal possible time. Missouri's John Ashcroft, for example, has demanded Clinton's resignation, declared that censure is unconstitutional, and insisted the Senate hold a trial. But he also says the trial should be quick and no witnesses should be called. Besides Ashcroft, the Campaigning Conservatives include Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania), Rod Grams (Minnesota), and Spencer Abraham (Michigan).

(Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is an honorary member. The extremely conservative McConnell is not running for re-election. In his heart, he undoubtedly favors a full trial. But McConnell supervises the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which oversees the 2000 Senate elections for the GOP. So he, too, is backing a quick, witnessless trial to protect his candidates.)

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The largest Republican constituency may be the Tight-Lipped Republicans. These folks, who include old-timers such as Virginia's John Warner, Alaska's Ted Stevens, and Mississippi's Thad Cochran, are as annoyed by the president as the next guy. But they're sick of the whole business, want it to end, don't want the Senate or the party damaged by it, and don't want to talk about it. The most prominent of the Tight-Lipped, oddly, is Arizona's John McCain, who is never tight-lipped. McCain, who is running for president and has his own shaky marital history, has assiduously ducked comment. "I'm about as big a media hound as anyone," McCain told one newspaper, but "I've turned down at least 500--maybe 600 or 700--requests to go on talk shows on this issue." The Tight-Lipped Republicans will probably vote for conviction but will also cooperate with any compromise that shortens the trial.

The Tight-Lipped Republicans are not to be confused with the Moderates, who may not vote for conviction. The mods are Jim Jeffords (Vermont), John Chafee (Rhode Island), and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine. None seems comfortable with the notion of removing Clinton for sex-related misdeeds. All but Collins are running for re-election in 2000, and all represent states where the removal of Clinton is anathema. If Lott's procedural agreement collapses and the Senate faces a long, ugly trial, the Mods are the Republicans most likely to support a Democratic motion to adjourn.

Not all Republican moderates are Moderates. Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who is often lumped with the Mods, really belongs with the Prosecutors. Led by Specter and Mike DeWine (Ohio), who are, in fact, ex-prosecutors, the Prosecutors view themselves as the Senate's champions of The Law. They tend to favor a trial with as much procedural baggage as can be attached. Specter, for example, pushed for the House to drop its Flytrap inquiry but, once Clinton was impeached, became an adamant supporter of a trial. He even favors having Clinton testify. The Prosecutors reject Gorton-Lieberman as a fraud and call censure unconstitutional. They are also alarmingly prone to say things like "I'm a stickler for the Constitution."

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T he Democrats: The Disgruntled Pragmatists lead the Democrats. Chief among them is Joe Lieberman (Connecticut). The DPs can barely open their mouths without savaging the president. Lieberman repeats his desire for a "stinging censure" so often that I am beginning to think he likes whips. But the DPs tend to view Clinton's failures as moral rather than criminal.

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The DPs know that a long trial probably benefits Democrats, but they are so sick of Flytrap and so concerned about the comity of the Senate that they will do almost anything to end this quickly. The other salient characteristic of the Disgruntled Pragmatists is that they speak out. Most Senate Democrats have ducked the spotlight during Flytrap because they don't want to get stuck defending the president's loathsome behavior. The DPs, who have inoculated themselves by attacking the president, have filled that void. Those who criticize the president most are his most effective defenders.

The Disgruntled Pragmatists provide cover for two other groups: Tight-Lipped Democrats and AnxiousDemocrats. Neither group wants to talk about the scandal. The Tight-Lipped, like their Republican counterparts, are sick of Flytrap and will do anything to end the trial with as little damage to the Senate as possible. The Anxious face re-election in 2000. Chuck Robb (Virginia) is the most prominent. Robb, who had his own sex scandal and represents a generally conservative state, has made it through a year of Flytrap with barely a public utterance. (When quizzed, his press secretary gave me the most innocuous three sentences I have ever heard. Robb, it seems, will do his "duty.") The Tight-Lipped and Anxious Dems will let their colleagues do the work of negotiating a deal and selling it to the public, keep their mouths shut, and vote to acquit.

The Partisans seek a Democratic political victory. A few Democrats believe that a full trial can serve the nation and the party. A trial would prove, once and for all, how frivolous the charges against Clinton are and warn any future Congress not to use impeachment as a political weapon. Tom Harkin (Iowa) is the one senator who expresses this view publicly, saying that Clinton should be "exonerated" with a "definitive vote." Harkin also acknowledges the political benefit from a trial: "I think the Republicans are reeling from this," he told the New York Times.

At the far end of the Democratic caucus from the Partisans are the Institutionalists, Patrick Moynihan (New York) and Robert Byrd (West Virginia). They don't particularly care about saving Clinton or about the health of the Democratic party. They aren't worried about their poll numbers, since Moynihan is retiring and Byrd holds a safe seat. They are most concerned about protecting their beloved institutions. Moynihan is now pushing censure in order to "protect the presidency as an institution." Impeachment could "destabilize the presidency" and "degrade the Republic quickly."

Byrd, who has joined Moynihan in trying to draft a censure resolution, has made it his mission to guard the Senate's prerogatives. He has warned the White House not to lobby senators for their vote. According to Byrd, everyone--the White House, the media, the House--should stop jockeying and let the Senate be the Senate.