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.

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.)

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.

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