TOPICS > Politics

Political Maneuvers

January 28, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Now, first of all I’m told the Republican plan just passed, or is on the verge of passing. And to update us on all of this and explain it we’re join by Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant and David Brooks, senior editor of the Weekly Standard. So, Tom, explain what we just saw.

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, on one level, I suppose you could call it an anarchist’s delight, though there is a little bit more order here than it looks like. The two sides have been unable to come together. That’s the most important fact. They tried. They’re close and I think it almost takes a Talmudic scholar to explore the differences between the two plans as they were just offered. The Republican one that has passed has essentially kept the door open to a continuation of these proceedings without a clear end in sight. The Democratic alternative would have put a much tighter box around it. But I think from a public standpoint, the most interesting thing is the failure of the two parties to get together and run this thing.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you explain this failure?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s really interesting. It reminds me of a policy wonks’ version of the Cuban missile crisis. You know, they have been dancing together; nobody blinked. So we are in partisan warfare. And it is interesting from the Republican point of view, because the Republican pollsters and all the people in charge of the political future of the Republican Party’s are like chickens without heads these days. The polls are dropping. You know, they are going around saying the sky is falling, the sky is falling. I’m mixing my chicken metaphors — but they are in total panic. And what is interesting about Trent Lott and the Republicans in the Senate is they’ve hung tough, they didn’t caved in to the Democratic demands. They were willing to go into this partisan world. It will surprise a lot of people.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Tom, explain why it was so important to both the Republicans and the Democrats. Say this videotape issue, I mean the only difference is, as I read these two resolutions is that Senator Lott leaves open the possibility that the videotapes may be shown in whole or in part on the floor of the Senate. And the Democrats didn’t want that. Why? Why is that such a big deal?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, we have heard all afternoon about White House concerns about the spectacle of Monica Lewinsky’s face being shown via videotape; a claim that seems rather hard to understand since the past year has been a spectacle and what could — could get much worse. The other thing that I think that is interesting though, is to show that this still alive and that one shouldn’t just say, this is a food fight, it’s hopeless, is that each party, in its resolution, kind of gave up something or showed its ability to have a little wiggle room. The Republicans, for example, have no provision for some kind of split verdict yet at the end of the this process by February 12th in their plan. And interestingly, Daschle, in return for a tighter box on the trial process, did not have anything in there about White House or even House manager opportunities to have more witnesses after these three have been deposed. So you can see them trying. It’s just that as of tonight they’ve failed totally.

MARGARET WARNER: So the Republican plan that now we’re going ahead for, though, David, go back to the videotaping for a minute, why is it so important to the House managers and the Senate Republicans to hang tough, as you put it, on that one point?

DAVID BROOKS: You know, I think it’s the Hail Monica strategy. Monica will focus the public’s attention. Something might happen. It’s not likely but something might happen. And the videotape controversy is actually kind of interesting. Just a few days ago we had the Harkin-Wellstone amendment which said the deliberations should be wide open. Most Democrats voted for that. Now these same Democrats are saying the evidence should be closed. So, the deliberations are open but the evidence is closed. And the Republicans have the reversed situation.

TOM OLIPHANT: And I think it’s even — the ironies are even more delicious because a couple of days ago it seemed that there was resistance on the Republican side to the idea of showing videotapes because it would signal the closing of the door to actual live body testimony on the floor of the Senate. And so now it seems that in about 48 hours, the two parties have managed to reverse roles, reverse positions, all in the name of some majestic constitutional purpose that I’m sure eludes the public and the public is quite correct at this point.

MARGARET WARNER: As you say, the anarchist’s delight. All right. If you’re in the public and you’re sitting home and you’re saying, okay, now what difference will this make? It means, one, they may see videotapes of the witnesses – as I read it though, also, David, doesn’t it leave open the possibility of live witnesses?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I would think Republicans are still loathe to do that. And I think the momentum is drifting away. Remember, the Republicans were set against videotapes. The fact they are willing to accept videotapes suggests they have given up on live. I think the other thing it does, it could pre-ordain the end game here. There were all these competing plans, conviction without removal, peanut butter without jelly, all this stuff. If we’re in partisan land, then it makes a simple up or down vote, I think, more likely. Though, as Tom says, they could still reach an agreement, so we shouldn’t close that off.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And you both mention the split verdict idea which you’ve steered away from till now. But explain this. This is something that actually everyone has been talking about all day, Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman was in high dudgeon over it. What is it and do you agree with Tom that there doesn’t seem to be a door left for that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I’m not sure about the door. What it is, it’s two votes on each motion. There would be first a finding of fact. Did he do it? Then the second vote, is he removable for it? And the Republicans want that because they think it establishes he was guilty. And then there’s a legal fog whether this is constitutional and the White House is deeply upset by it.

TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed. I think one reason that the provision in the Lott proposal may not be crystal clear tonight is that there are a couple of things that have happened just in the last 24 hours. There’s some indication that the Senate parliamentarians do not view the proposal as constitutional. So that would mean Lott would have to get the Senate on a partisan basis to overrule a William Rehnquist ruling, which would look bad.

MARGARET WARNER: And explain why, just in political terms, the White House would hate that so much or seems to?

TOM OLIPHANT: The split verdict. Well anything that makes it easier to enter some kind of judgment that the president committed a crime, I think the word that gets people into fixed battle is crime. And so why censure, condemnation has always been something that the White House has been willing to consider, at least, something that is part of the impeachment record makes them see red.

MARGARET WARNER: But how is that different from censure which the White House says it’s ready to accept?

DAVID BROOKS: This is a good question because there are some forms of the finding of fact which are just the same as censure. There is a sort of a Rube Goldbergian complexity to all this. My grandmother used to say smart, smart, stupid – you know, too smart. And a lot of these are too smart, which I think again makes it more likely we will have just a straight vote, just as the Constitution envisioned we would.

TOM OLIPHANT: There is nothing in the Lott proposal that prevents the Senate from getting to the end on February 12th as proposed. Another dirty little secret about the split verdict, though, is that many conservatives oppose it violently. They want the clear verdict guilty or not. They don’t like the idea of fudge on constitutional grounds. They don’t like censure. And I think Republicans who are advancing this idea have run into problems in their own party that people sometimes forget.

DAVID BROOKS: And I think it gives moderate Republicans a chance to peel off the crucial -

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So, let’s go back to what we do know will happen or we can say with some certainty will happen. Depositions will begin when?

TOM OLIPHANT: This weekend there is nothing to prevent that. The motion already agreed to yesterday permits the — authorizes the issuance of this subpoena, so assuming everybody can be brought to a place, they could begin as early as Saturday would be my guess. But – and here’s where the fudge in the Lott resolution starts to come into play. It is not entirely clear after the first part of next week precisely what happens after that.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean because even though Lott has certainly talked about resuming the trial by next Thursday, there’s room here for all kinds of motions.

TOM OLIPHANT: There are going to be motions. And the Democratic threat in here, you saw an example of it, people did if they were watching an hour or so ago, when there was another Democratic motion to go directly to the final arguments in the case. And I wouldn’t be surprised if every day the trial convenes, that at Democrat doesn’t get up and make some kind of motion like this to end it in order to reinforce the partisan image of yesterday.

DAVID BROOKS: Remember when the House democrats walked out of the chamber, they staged a walkout, senators wouldn’t do something so uncouth, but this is their version.

MARGARET WARNER: David, before we go, how much of a risk – I mean, this was not what the White House wanted — in terms of real terms, how much of a risk is there now for the president or the White House in these procedures? I mean, the conventional wisdom has always been there are not 67 votes to convict the president. Is there anything here that threatens that?

DAVID BROOKS: There is a remote chance that Monica Lewinsky or Vernon Jordan will say something but I wouldn’t put money on it. It clarifies the issue. History can say Republicans were on this side, Democrats were on this side; you judge.

TOM OLIPHANT: But it’s hard not to see this living up to that comment that was once made about academic politics, that the reason they are so vicious is the stakes are so small.

DAVID BROOKS: I suspect at the end of the day, the White House will be happy today because it is a more partisan process, they can paint the Republicans as the bad guy. And some conservatives will be happy too because they think “let history judge us.”

MARGARET WARNER: And what happened to the moderates not in ideological terms but those in both parties that didn’t want a partisan process?

TOM OLIPHANT: The message from these votes, and there have been one or two Democratic defections, is there is no middle ground. There are only two the parties at war, which is the worst image for Washington.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, thank you Tom and David — very much.