Should He Resign?
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JIM LEHRER: Republican Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri today joined the call for President Clinton to resign. He’s with us now to debate that issue with Congressman Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts. Senator, why should the president resign?
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT, (R-MO): Well, I believe that the president has really impaired the national interest by subordinating it to his personal interest. He’s disgraced the office. He has broken the trust of the American people in the office. He’s incapacitated himself in large measure with the distrust that he’s engendered with both Republicans and Democrats. It’s notable that a member of his own party has called for his resignation, Rep. McHale, and others, former members of his party, members of the Congress, editorialists, editorials around the country. The question is: Are we going to live with an incapacitated or otherwise damaged capacity to operate not only domestically but internationally, with a range of challenges before us? Are we going to be dragged through continuous additional legal proceedings? It’s obvious that the president refused to answer the tough questions when he made his voluntary appearance before the grand jury. Or are we going to put an end to this? And the way to put an end to it, since the president did not do so in his speech, is for the president to do the honorable thing, to put the public interest above the national interest, and to resign.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman Frank, is that the honorable thing for the president to do now?
REP. BARNEY FRANK, (D-MA): No. I don’t think-I think there’s a confusion here between the types of systems we have. What Bill Clinton has done, clearly, is to his discredit, and were he to be a candidate for re-election, he wouldn’t be a candidate for re-election. I think that’s been clear all along, that this was the kind of judgment that people would take into account if a candidate was running again. But we don’t have a parliamentary system. We have a constitutional system. We say when you get elected, you get elected for a fixed term. In parliamentary systems, you lose confidence, there’s a way to deal with that. That’s not in our system and there’s no reason for it to be. In fact, it would be much more disruptive to have a resignation. I think the public makes a very sensible distinction, which is we are talking here and judging the president in some ways about his public policies. There he tends to be supported. I do think a lot of people are disappointed in his personal behavior and how he talked about it, and if he were a candidate for re-election, as I said, I think people would not be telling him you can’t be a candidate for re-election. But the problem I have with Sen. Ashcroft’s reasoning is that it’s circular. He says he has to resign because he’s incapacitated. Well, Sen. Ashcroft, as is his right, is trying mightily to incapacitate him, but I don’t think it happens. The fact is that the president continues to have a lot of support from the public on the public policies, and I think there’s no sign whatsoever that he hasn’t continued to function effectively as president, including in foreign policy. The notion that he’s incapacitated internationally is simply belied by the fact that this does not appear to be internationally nearly as big a story as it is here at home. And I don’t think the Russian government, the people trying to make peace in Ireland, in fact, let’s take that as an example-the Lewinsky thing broke earlier this year. During that period, the whole time this was raging, Bill Clinton got, deserved widespread credit for helping put together the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. So people can be angry at him. They can say if he were running again, they wouldn’t vote for him, but the disruption of a resignation simply is not justified.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Ashcroft.
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I don’t think that the facts bear out the allegations that or the suggestion that this president is not distracted and that he’s not having problems with this. If you look to the situation in Iraq this last week, we had a good face being put forward by the United States, but our Secretary of State going behind to the back door to say don’t disrupt the Iraqis by trying to have any surprise inspections and let’s back off from our responsibility to make sure that they don’t have inappropriate chemical or nuclear weapons or there program isn’t threatening, it’s very difficult to allege, I think, credibly that a president could have this kind of pressure and this kind of distraction, this kind of responsibility, including having lied to the American people for eight months solid, having sent his cabinet members out to have them lie, putting them in the compromising position of being known and identified as those who have lied for their president, when they go to negotiate internationally, and to say that this does not impair our capacity to operate. We need a president that represents the values we try to teach our children: integrity, accountability, and responsibility. And that’s simply no longer possible. The president says he wants to be responsible, but he doesn’t want to accept any consequences. Responsibility and consequence go together. That’s one of the things that is inevitable. And this president has, in effect, resigned. In many respects he resigned his responsibility to be honest with the American people. He’s resigned his responsibility to be accountable. He’s still ducking the questions about his behavior, refusing to answer the questions when he did visit the grand jury. And it was his attorney who came out of the grand jury and leaked the information about his blatant and sort of obstreperous refusal to answer the questions. So I think this does not represent what we need in terms of the strength that we must have representing the American position.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman Frank, what about one of the many points that the Senator just made, that the president, in effect, has resigned his responsibility in a way by the way he has conducted himself?
REP. BARNEY FRANK: Well, I think that’s wishful thinking. First, let me just take the example of Iraq. Frankly, I’m disappointed that the Senator has that view of what’s going on in Iraq today. It seems to me, frankly, a somewhat shallow understanding of the realities. Our problem with Iraq has got nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. It has to do with the reluctance of the Soviet Union, Russia, and France to back us up. It has to do with the internal politics of the Arab world. The notion that if it weren’t for Monica Lewinsky, we would have an easy time, that we’d have worldwide support for bombing Iraq, that would be an easier situation, simply isn’t true. As I said, that’s a very shallow and misleading view of the world. The Iraqi problems that we face have to do with an erosion among our allies of a will that’s been a real problem for the United States. It goes back to earlier administrations. It has nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky. And let me say with regard to his resigning, I think, frankly, what the Senator would like to see is a president who’s not in office to push for HMO reform and campaign finance reform, and that’s what we’re talking about now. The question of whether or not Bill Clinton behaved appropriately would come up if he was running again. Clearly, he hasn’t; he’s acknowledged that.
JIM LEHRER: Hasn’t-
REP. BARNEY FRANK: But what the Senator’s trying to do is I think remove him now. We’re about to come back to the critical last month of a session in which HMO reform, tobacco regulation, campaign finance reform, will come up. I think Bill Clinton will have a major impact on that, because I think he’s on the right side, both morally and politically, of the issues, and I think this is an effort to say, well, we want to get him out of there. No, I don’t think-I think we’re afraid that he will be too effective, not that he will be ineffective, on those very critical issues.
JIM LEHRER: And, as a Democrat, Congressman Frank, you believe that the president can lead on those issues you just outlined, right?
REP. BARNEY FRANK: No question, because I think the American public is prepared to say-and these are three very important ones-campaign finance reform, the Shays-Meehan bill now going on to the Senate; HMO reform; tobacco reform; and the budget-whether or not you cut the important programs like low-income home energy assistance that the Republicans are trying to cut, as I said, I think the Republican fear is that Bill Clinton will be too effective in mobilizing support on those issues in the next month, rather than that he’ll be ineffective.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Ashcroft, what about an earlier point that Congressman Frank made, that the public opinion polls show that they do not-the public does not want the president to be either impeached or to resign as a result of that, and they support him for what he’s doing as President of the United States?
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, I believe that we’ve got a couple of choices here. We can either have a president that continues to be the center of this maelstrom of controversy with additional legal proceedings perhaps ending in impeachment proceedings-it becomes pretty clear now that the president must have committed perjury-so the legal proceedings are going to go on. This is going to be a continuing story. It’s a saga which will be distracting. Don’t kid yourself to say that this doesn’t distract the president. Secondly, the other option is to put this behind us, and I believe putting this behind us is what ought to happen. In so doing the president would do the country a service by putting his personal interest beneath the national interest for a change, and I think that’s important. This is not about the president’s private life. This is not the president’s bedroom. We’re talking about the American people’s Oval Office. The president disgraced it, and the controversy surrounding it immobilizes and incapacitates him.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman Frank, is resignation the only way to end this right now?
REP. BARNEY FRANK: No. What’s going to happen is he’s not going to resign. Kenneth Starr will send us a report. By the way, I hope Kenneth Starr will send us a complete report, because, remember, we are talking here about the culmination fairly soon of years of accusations, which include accusations about Whitewater, the FBI files and the Travel Office, all of which did include accusations of a misuse of office. And apparently, Kenneth Starr is not finding anything negative about that. We ought to have the whole report, and then we will act on it. And that’s apparently the way it’s going to go. The Senator-I didn’t say that the president was not distracted by this-there is a difference. He said at first he was incapacitated. If you wanted to go-if you wanted to substitute distract for incapacitate, I would agree. I think it’s somewhat distracting but not in any way that I think ends his ability to have an impact on the issues. And I really think that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about people who would like to see him removed as an influence on public policy. And I think that’s a distinction the public makes and makes intelligently. It’s one thing to say if this guy was running again, I wouldn’t vote for him. It’s another to say we want his influence as a public policy formulator removed. I assume the way it’s going to end now is Kenneth Starr is going to send us a report at some time, it will be a report about all those issues, I hope, and we will have to deal with it. There are some open questions. As far as the president not answering questions, I have to say if this comes down to the president, not be willing to give graphic detail, if he acknowledged having a physical relationship, a sexual relationship with her. If he gets into physical detail-well, I believe he went beyond that in the grand jury.
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, he didn’t say to the American people, other than the-
REP. BARNEY FRANK: I’m talking about the grand jury. Excuse me, but we were talking-I was referring to Senator Ashcroft, with reference to the grand jury questions. But he was talking about not answering questions before the grand jury. And in the grand jury-if the issue is, should have gotten very graphic and specific in the grand jury, no, I don’t see any reason for that, and I don’t think a president’s going to be impeached for not giving graphic descriptions to a grand jury.
JIM LEHRER: As a practical matter, Senator, do you think the president will resign?
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT: I don’t know whether he will. He should. When Congressman Frank says he’s been distracted but it doesn’t affect his performance-
REP. BARNEY FRANK: No, I didn’t say that, Senator. I said he wasn’t incapacitated. You’re consistently mis-stating this. I didn’t say it wouldn’t affect his performance. I said it would-he would not be incapacitated.
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I guess what we’re really agreed then, that the president’s performance will be affected, that he’ll have a diminished capacity to deal with the problems that face us.
REP. BARNEY FRANK: No. That I don’t agree to.
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, if you’re distracted and it affects your performance, I think that-
REP. BARNEY FRANK: No. I think that-see, I think you want to diminish it, Senator. I think you would rather not have him be a-and campaign finance reform and tobacco issues-and those are the ones that I think people are more afraid that it’ll be too effective than they won’t be effective. You don’t want him to be effective on those issues.
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT: We need a president who represents what America should represent around the world and is effective in doing so. And a distracted president can’t get that done.
JIM LEHRER: Senator, Congressman, thank you both very much.