TOPICS > Politics

The End Game

February 8, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now some observations about today’s arguments from two analysts who watched the event for our gavel-to-gavel coverage: Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant and David Brooks, senior editor of the Weekly Standard.

David, has anything changed as a result of today?

DAVID BROOKS: We’re not going to see the president removed. He’s still pretty safe. It was sort of a day of sense and sensibility — Charles Ruff, the very sensible White House lawyer, just going through the case in his rigorous way. If there are seven charges of obstruction, he’s going to talk about all seven. He’s just going to go 1, 2, 3, 4. If there’s going to be a war of legal pads, the White House is going to win. They have got magna cum laudes coming out of their ears; they’re a very talented legal staff. The Republicans were sort of the side of sensibility. They were more personal — talking about themselves, their childhood, how they got into politics, what this all means to them, why destiny has brought them here. This sort of self-revelatory theme is not what Republicans do best, by the way. But they were the ones and I thought they were most effective being the side of sensibility because they have to get away from the legal fine points, talk about history, talk about morality, which is sort of their strongest case, and talk more importantly to the country about why they pushed this on so long.

JIM LEHRER: Because they have been criticized for it they needed to come over –

DAVID BROOKS: And they needed to say – and I thought the parts where they talked most personally, you know, they went into Oprah Winfrey mode, they were actually effective.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Tom, your overview.

TOM OLIPHANT: Including — just to follow on the point here which I largely agree with — three of those 13 House managers voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. These are not life-long Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: Because, they said, because Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon and were upset with what Nixon –

DAVID BROOKS: Lust in your heart is good. (Laughing).

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. If David used, say, Jane Austen — let me try a horticulture or agriculture or flora, anyway — the House Republicans, I think, wanted to talk about the forest in an effort, I think, to shore up their standing among somewhat wavering Senate Republicans on the obstruction of justice charge. And in concentrating on the forest, I think they stressed moral points, the moral offensiveness of the president’s conduct, the moral offensiveness of lying, in particular, any kind of lying for any reason, and then thirdly, the broad sweep of obstruction of justice, trying not to get bogged down in the minutia of the case, though of course they defended particular points totally different from the White House point of view. Chuck Ruff was a trees man today. And there are 11 specific allegations in the two articles of impeachment, and he went through them one by one factually on the theory that if you knock down each and every tree, there’s no more forest — and then with one additional point though, to suggest to these wavering Republicans that removal of a presidency affects the stability of the country, to appeal to a conservative instinct against a radical act like impeachment.

JIM LEHRER: Now, if you’re right, David, that the basic numbers did not change, the number that counts — there have to be 67 votes to convict and remove President Clinton — there are other numbers at work here. And let’s talk about that for a moment. The Democrats — I mean, the White House wants a certain number, and, of course, the Republicans want a certain number. Give us the Republican number.

DAVID BROOKS: The number is 50 the White House cares about is — there’s a big number in Clinton circles. Remember, he wanted to get 50 in the last election, 50 percent of the electorate. Now he would like to make sure that he gets a majority against removal. And there are two counts. There’s the perjury count, number one, where it looks like there may be no majority in that case. And then there’s the obstruction count, which has emerged as the stronger count. And there are really some people up in the air on this sitting in the Senate today. And that’s who they were talking to.

TOM OLIPHANT: Including, by the way, at least two Democrats that I can think of. I mean, this is not nailed down on the Democratic side yet.

JIM LEHRER: All 45 senators– Democrats are not –

TOM OLIPHANT: I can only say for absolutely certain 43. I would be a little bit doubtful about two others at the end. And on the Republican side, there have to be at least ten, I would say, who are in doubt on obstruction of justice. That’s a tremendous amount of flux really for an issue like this that’s been around so long.

JIM LEHRER: Is it — I don’t know what the term is — is it “fair” to say what both sides are now fighting for -or is the spin afterward, that, okay, we lost — the Republicans can say, we lost our case, the president is still president but a majority of the United States Senate wanted to get rid of them. And then the White House is arguing, see, not only they didn’t get 67, they couldn’t even get a majority. But is that important?

TOM OLIPHANT: No. And I don’t think it’s going to be important for more than five or six hours, assuming the vote comes on Friday night at that point. Both current history and longer-term, I think what matters is the result. What matters maybe is the quality of the case as we talk about it as time passed. I would be very surprised if, whether it’s 40 votes or 55 votes, or whatever it is, that anybody is particularly fixated on that a week from now any more than anybody cares today that President Clinton didn’t quite get 50 percent of the popular vote in ’96.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: No, not quite. I’m not sure the votes matter, whether it’s 48 or 49, but the spin matters. You know, we had an event that happened, you know, two years ago in the White House. And there’s been a pile of discourse put on top of it and then discourse, and discourse, and discourse, and a big ball of discourse, of which today is the last. But what we’re fighting about are fundamental issues about America, fundamental issues about how women are treated in the workplace, fundamental issues of what we expect from our politicians, his personal, the political. These are the issues which are the core of the so called culture war that has taken place since the 1960s. And that really is – you know — how the history views the Clinton scandal will determine who won the culture war or what sort of reconciliation was reached in the culture war. So, I think those sorts of arguments which take place today and we happen to fight them out in these legal arenas, that really does matter.

TOM OLIPHANT: I was just wondering though whether we’ll really be fighting about them a week from now or a month from now, or whether this will instantly go to history. I was struck today– despite our, by definition, “necessary” attention to the six hours of the closing arguments– that we were hearing a great deal about senator fatigue, and we’ve certainly heard a great deal about national fatigue. And I’m just not so certain but that after Friday what is going to happen in the country, it’s going to be like sticking a needle in a balloon and that at least for a good spell, everybody is going to want to do something else for a while.

JIM LEHRER: There’s one other piece of business before — a couple of other pieces of business before this thing is finally wrapped up, of course, in that tomorrow there is going to be a decision made after a two-hour debate behind closed doors, as we understand it, by the Senate, as to whether or not to allow cameras to be present for their deliberations. Any update on that, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, the most significant news today is that Trent Lott apparently is going to oppose opening up the proceedings. It’s a very close situation. I think his position would probably be pivotal, but I keep wondering, after seeing six more hours of somebody else getting all that speech-making time on the Senate floor, whether the senators are not going to want to step up and get –

DAVID BROOKS: You’re just going to have to step up, Jim, and invite them on –

JIM LEHRER: Right, right. But you believe that it’s pretty close, right, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. What I’ve been hearing is it was close. But Trent Lott is pivotal. And if he is gone for the closed debate, then that’s probably decisive. But it’s a sign again, which has been a sign since this thing started, of the power of the Constitution. The Constitution lays down rails, calls for closed deliberations. It’s really hard to mess up the Constitution. It just points the way.

TOM OLIPHANT: Though in this case those are the rules for the last impeachment, rather than the Constitution itself. And there is, I think, a kind of resentment of them, especially at this point. I think this is a very difficult –

JIM LEHRER: By the senators, you mean?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, you can feel the resentment.

JIM LEHRER: How dare those House members be lecturing us when I can –

TOM OLIPHANT: And what I have some trouble understanding sometime is the public position of senators wanting to close those doors is a very hard case to make in public.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the argument for doing it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, (a), the constitutional argument. That’s what it calls for, let’s respect, (b), the political argument: Why should we go on and talk about Monica Lewinsky? I’m in a pivotal race here in Michigan or Pennsylvania or some other state; why should I stand up and have everybody say, look, I’m the one who voted to impeach the president? That’s so unpopular. So, they’d rather avoid that particular party.

JIM LEHRER: Why are the Democrats — or at least most of the democrats — in favor of opening it up?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I think it’s counterintuitive, at least in part, on the Democratic side because presumably you’d feel that you know, that they would look – don’t want to be out there defending the president at this point. And the answer is what Democrats want to do in public is kick the living bejesus out of President Clinton on the floor morally and then wrap themselves in the flag and say they’re standing up for the country by not voting to remove him, to try to get the best of it both ways in public; whereas in private, I think you’d hear them talk quite differently.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. That’s the thing we’ve noticed. The more they’re frothing at the mouth, the more they’re likely to acquit.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, after that, of course, the vote, the final vote could come as early as Thursday. Each of the senators — whether it’s open or closed — they get 15 minutes whether they want to take it or not. So that takes care of everything up till Thursday. And then there would be a vote. Now – and assuming it goes the way that everybody believes, that there is an acquittal, then the suggestion has been, well, then there will be a quick vote on censure. Is that still in the works?

TOM OLIPHANT: Boy, the air is going out of that one –

JIM LEHRER: Is that –

TOM OLIPHANT: — almost as fast as sticking a pin in the balloon. First of all, I think conservatives have educated the country about the constitutional argument against censure. Then I think, as time has passed, they have caused people to think differently about it. It has a lot of steam on the — in the middle of the Senate — conservative Democrats, relatively moderate Republicans, very little support as you move toward the fringes.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And then the practical question of what does the censure resolution say? The thing that they’re passing around now has gone for about 97 drafts. And if you please people on the right, you displease those on the left. It’s hard to see.

JIM LEHRER: So then if there’s no censure, that means it’s like any other trial. He’s acquitted and that’s the end of it.

DAVID BROOKS: Again, the power of the Constitution; it calls for a straight up-and-down vote. And that’s the –

TOM OLIPHANT: This isn’t over. It could still happen, but right now I would say the momentum is very, very — particularly because you might have to break a filibuster to get a censure.

JIM LEHRER: You know what is over is our discussion. Thank you both very much.