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The House Debate the Impeachment of President Clinton

December 18, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, here’s where things stand on the impeachment story at this moment. The plan is to continue the debate until 10 p.m. tonight Eastern Time, and the return tomorrow at 9 a.m. for another one hour of debate, and then to vote on the four articles of impeachment against President Clinton. Mark Shields and Paul Gigot have been watching the day’s proceedings.

Paul, how would you characterize this debate this day so far?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, Jim, my reaction to it is kind of astonishment. I think the most remarkable words uttered today weren’t really by any of the politicians, debaters – they were when the clerk of the House read those articles of impeachment and said, President Bill Clinton shall be impeached for. This is a president who is supposed to have such remarkable political skill, does have political skill, and then the last – he’s the second president in history who looks like he’ll be impeached – and a Republican Party who – a Republican House that backed down just a few weeks ago on $8 billion worth of spending – and here they’re making this act of power and determination to put him on the path of ousting him from power. It’s a momentous event. And I don’t think that the debate, itself, necessarily lived up to it, but just as the moment, itself, which is so big.

JIM LEHRER: The moment, itself, is very big.

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Paul, yes, I think so, Jim. I think politically Paul put his finger on it. It’s the Republicans. 98 percent plus will vote – Republicans are going to vote to impeach the president; 98 percent plus of the Democrats are going to vote against impeaching him. It’s not a bipartisan effort. It’s very much a partisan effort. And that was reflected in today’s debate. I think that there’s no question that on substance the – arguing points, the Republicans had the better of it today. I mean, rhetorically, the Democrats, as one leading Democrat on Capitol Hill said to me, the facts are not friendly to our side. Now, we have to begin your defense each time by saying the president’s deportment and conduct was reprehensible, indefensible, sinful, harmful, and I just want to condemn it. It’s then kind of tough to come back and make your case. But I think that the Republicans, with their rush to judgment, and I really think they made a tactical mistake by pushing to have this debate in such a hurry. I think in a strange way they lost the fight for the mood today – even though if you read the record, I think it’ll look good in print – there was a sense in the mood that the Republicans were caught off guard through most of the day.

JIM LEHRER: They began this morning – for those folks who didn’t watch it, we should recap a little bit – the Democrats made a strong argument, beginning with Dick Gephardt, the Minority Leader, on two grounds. This was not the day for it because of the bombing in Iraq and this was not the way to do it. He wanted a vote on censure, rather than a vote on impeachment. And then that theme has –


JIM LEHRER: — has stayed there all day. How do you think that’s worked?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think it’s been the strongest case they have, because, as Mark pointed out, the facts are not necessarily their strongest argument. I thought Dick Gephardt made a very effective argument for the Democrats on those two grounds – particularly the censure argument. Republicans are left to argue that it’s not constitutional to allow it, which is not an easy case to make, and that theme of fairness – why not let us have that argument – I think the Democrats scored some points. I think on the argument of the day it’s a weaker argument that the Democrats have, because on Monday with the bombing now looking like it will continue into next week, I don’t think Monday would have made all that much difference in the long run, and, frankly, in terms of the scope of the debate, give the Democrats some talking points for 48 hours, but Bill Clinton, if he’s impeached, will be impeached for all time.

JIM LEHRER: Back to the point you made a moment ago, finally, Mark, that this is – this began as a partisan effort in the very beginning months ago, and it remains one, even on this night, the night before – there’s been no change – it’s 98 plus on one side, and 98 – the prison that both sides lived through is, are you a Democrat, do you see it this way, if you’re a Republican, you see it that way.

MARK SHIELDS: This is what I say about the tactic – I think pushing it and denying the censure vote. I think it forced a lot of Democrats, who are not particularly close to Bill Clinton and are quite contemptuous of his behavior, into the Democratic camp, because there wasn’t a censure vote. It was – the argument was made on the floor today that said the polls – Americans overwhelmingly favor censure. You don’t have to vote for censure, because the polls suggest that – that public support – but you do have to, in fairness, give it a vote. And I don’t think there’s any question that the key decision that was made was made essentially by Tom Delay and the leaders in the Republican Party – was to deny that censure vote. Once they denied that censure vote, that the only way that Republicans could express their distaste for the president’s conduct or their condemnation on it was to vote for impeachment.

PAUL GIGOT: The irony here is that I’m not so sure that a censure draft – censured statement – could have been agreed to enough to pass because there were real divisions among Democrats about how serious you wanted to make it, and whether or not you’d actually make it into include he had lied under oath. I don’t know that they would have agreed to that.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, would you both agree that barring something really catastrophic in terms of a change, there’s going to be a vote in the morning or tomorrow sometime to impeach the president on at least one article of impeachment?

MARK SHIELDS: I think there will be, Jim, and what’s remarkable is there are going to be so few Democrats running against it because it could be a free vote. He’s going to be impeached anyway, but I think there will be fewer than five Democrats voting it with the Republicans.

PAUL GIGOT: And maybe as few as seven Republicans breaking and saying no.

JIM LEHRER: But you agree that –

PAUL GIGOT: It looks to me – unless there is a miracle – he will be impeached.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Paul, Mark, thank you both very much. And we return now to the House floor for the debate.