December 11, 1998
|Despite another apology by the president, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Mr. Clinton today. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot discuss the historic vote.|
JIM LEHRER: And now to syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. And we just heard Congressman Barrett said they had to go. They had to go to vote, because they're about to vote on article number two, so possibly before we're finished here, we'll know how that one came out.
Mark, whatever - we already have a favorable vote on article number one, so there is going to be a debate and a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives in the next week on whether or not the president should be impeached. Where do you think it's headed now?
|Heading to the floor.|
MARK SHIELDS: I think it's headed to the floor, Jim. I don't think anybody who pretends that he or she knows at this point is kidding himself or herself, and anybody that that person is talking to. We've got somewhere in play about three dozen members on both sides of the aisle, and most of them are keeping their powder dry, the ones who are really - because it just invites incredible pressure, and the spotlight. I think the Democrats are confident they'll be able to hold the losses to five or fewer on their side, and the - obviously the president has to pick up support across the aisle. But I mean there was never any question I don't think in anybody's mind who's been remotely involved in this story that the committee was going to report out the article of impeachment and that it was going to split along partisan lines.
JIM LEHRER: I've just been told that the article - the second article has now been passed by the House Judiciary Committee. And that's the one perjury in the Paula Jones deposition. Do you want to take a swing at my not - at my curve ball?
PAUL GIGOT: And contradict, Mark? I mean, nobody knows. Nobody knows. Not only are they keeping their powder dry; they're not even putting their heads out of the ground. I mean, they are incommunicado - most of these people - you can't get them on the phone, less they commit themselves to something -
JIM LEHRER: We tried many times to get them to come on this program and talk about it, about their indecision; they won't do it either.
PAUL GIGOT: Some you can get to talk on background will tell you that this is one of the toughest votes they've ever confronted. I'd say right now the momentum is moving against the president in terms of declarations, but the White House has enormous resources at its disposal, and the engine of lobbying from the White House side is just really getting underway, phone calls and stuff.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think the president helped himself with that four-minute statement this afternoon?
MARK SHIELDS: I wouldn't have done it that way, quite frankly, if I were advising the president, which, I mean, gratefully for his sake I'm not, but I think -
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. Just for the record, the vote was 20 to 17. Congressman Graham was - as he said -
MARK SHIELDS: True to his word - as he told Margaret.
JIM LEHRER: True to his words, as he just told Margaret.
MARK SHIELDS: He was an island.
JIM LEHRER: That's right. He was an island.
MARK SHIELDS: He was unto himself.
JIM LEHRER: So the vote was 20 Republicans in favor of that article, 17 against. That's sixteen Democrats and Congressman Graham of South Carolina. Go ahead.
MARK SHIELDS: Where were we? The statement this afternoon. He had been urged by the Democrats in the House not to make it; that he basically had one bite at the apple and why not do it, when you're - next week when -
JIM LEHRER: After the committee -
MARK SHIELDS: After the committee when you can establish the right setting, when you can promote the thing that the president is going to address, there's going to be an evening statement in a more formal statement. The White House wanted to do it as a preemptive strike. He's leaving the country - the president is -
JIM LEHRER: He's going to the Middle East.
MARK SHIELDS: To express contrition as he's going out, and so that any photo ops that follow on that trip - people are going to say, well, look at him over there, he's over there smiling while this is going on back here; that the last impression that he left as he left the country was that of a contrite man.
JIM LEHRER: But your point is, Paul, that this is only step number one on the - for the White House to try to turn this thing around or keep -
PAUL GIGOT: That would be my view. I mean, my reading of Bill Clinton's history is that he will do whatever it takes to avoid what would be a stigma written into his obituary - and the lead of his obituary, which is that he would be only the second president in history to be impeached by the whole House. He will do anything - he may even tell part of the truth before this over - if - if he has to. But I agree with Mark that I don't think this helped him all that much with Republicans, because some of the Republicans, as Lindsey Graham said, were looking for him to acknowledge that he broke the law.
JIM LEHRER: They essentially want him to cop a plea is what it boils down to.
PAUL GIGOT: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: Plead "guilty" and throw himself on the mercy of the Congress.
PAUL GIGOT: And I think that he was preserving the lie - this line in this instance, which is that this is just a personal problem. And the Republicans want him to go further and say this was actually a crime against the judicial system. And so far, he's not done that.
MARK SHIELDS: Let me just say I think that the president recognizes, as any reasonable observer should, that there are some people who are never going to be satisfied. I mean, members of that committee - unless - said he was personally responsible for the latest outbreak of ringworm in Pocatello, Idaho, they would not be satisfied. But there's an interesting - there's an interesting proposition that's been formulated here. If the president will admit that he perjured himself, we won't impeach him. If the president won't admit that he perjured himself, we will impeach him. Now that's sort of a hell of a dilemma and conundrum. And I think what we have - and Paul mentioned the political implications for the White House - there are political implications here for the Republicans - very serious ones.
If you're a moderate Republican sitting there, Jim, and you're undecided right now, and you - consistent with your conscience - and all the arguments that have been made - you have to figure is this going to save me permanently from being challenged on my right in the next primary in the year 2000 from somebody who's coming after me and said, you let Bill Clinton off the hook, and that is the argument that's being made inside, on the Republican side, for those moderates saying this will save you from any future challenge on your right in a primary from the conservatives, and it gives you that chance to then run for the general election where, of course, moderate conservatives - moderate Republicans are a lot stronger than they are in early primaries.
JIM LEHRER: But, Paul, there's been another thing from the - say anti-impeachment - the Democratic side - it's been raised - because one of these articles of impeachment against the president is abuse of power and that the Republicans might be susceptible to an abuse of power thing, themselves, because of the results of the election in November and all the polls show that an overwhelming majority of the American people do not want the president impeached, and if they go ahead and impeach him, that's an abuse of their party-line power and control of the Congress. What do you think about that as -
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think it's more an implicit political threat, namely - number one -
JIM LEHRER: Not legally -
PAUL GIGOT: Right. It's a political threat that the public doesn't want him impeached. You will pay for it in two years. And the -
JIM LEHRER: No matter what they do on you right in your own party, right?
PAUL GIGOT: Exactly. In the trauma, the trauma of the Senate trial, the agony of that, you're shutting things down. You have the apocalypse now. I mean, they're predicting that it's going to be a shutdown of the government again, I think Zoe Lofgren even said - but the response you're getting from other Republicans is, well, wait a minute, the election is two years off, you've got this problem within your party on the right - and those are the people that really care about this - your active supporters. Those Democrats who don't want to impeach, they're going to vote for your opponent anyway. So I think it's - it's a tough call.
JIM LEHRER: Now for the Democrats - the thing I think we need to explain - Congressman Barrett and folks like him - Democrats like him - why they want to vote for censure - even though they know they're going to lose it - that's cover for them, right?
MARK SHIELDS: Sure it is. The universal position - the only thing that held - and this is a divided committee and a split committee - the only thing they all agreed upon is that Bill Clinton's behavior was reprehensible, not simply in the relationship with Monica Lewinsky but his lying to the country, his lying to his own staff, to his most loyal supporters, to his family, misleading people all the way along the line, that was reprehensible. And every Democrat is on record saying that, and they'd also like to have -
JIM LEHRER: Look, I voted - I voted to censure - I voted to condemn his conduct, et cetera.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. And obviously then if impeachment does fail and there are not 218 votes or the necessary majority vote for it, then at that point - that you have a censure resolution ready that you can offer.
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.
PAUL GIGOT: There are some Republicans who want that censure option too. I mean, -- and people in both parties who would like this both ways - I mean, you can impose impeachment and you can say - but then you can say I'm not for perjury. You know, it really is a political finesse, and that's the why they want it.
JIM LEHRER: And the censure - but in order for it to work, the censure resolution has to be very strongly worded, does it not?
PAUL GIGOT: And that's the mistake I think that the draft censure resolution today or this week made for the Democrats, because it doesn't - while some of the language is tough, the essential admission by the president isn't much stronger than the president's statement today and Paul McHale, the Democrat from Pennsylvania, had drafted an earlier censure resolution which was tougher and did say the president crossed the line of lying under oath.
JIM LEHRER: Overview here now. It wasn't long ago - maybe two or three weeks ago - that the three of us were sitting here, talking about the likelihood of an impeachment - I mean a pro-impeachment vote on the floor of the House, which will come next week. We don't know how it's going to turn out. But the likelihood of that happening was considered not good, all right, that probably wasn't going to happen. Now it's changed. What has happened in the last two or three weeks?
|A change of mood.|
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there's a couple of things that have happened, Jim, and Paul put his finger on one of them; that the Republican Party - this is a Republican Party issue right now. In the Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll this week 56 percent of Republicans were in favor of impeachment - the country's two to one against impeachment - but among Republicans they favor impeaching Bill Clinton.
There's disgust with behavior as well, but there's also underlying that severe and serious animosity toward the president. Now, what has been irrational to most observers is to watch the Republican Party. In that very small Wall Street Journal survey, fall in public esteem by 20 points since September, all right? They've just dropped; they've plummeted, and at the same time, as this is happening, the Democrats have actually risen in popularity, so Republicans seem to be making a deal, which is, we'll get him, and we've got two years to get back and rehabilitate ourselves.
JIM LEHRER: How do your read this change?
PAUL GIGOT: I think that's part of it. I also think that when you look - a lot of Republicans are saying when you break out that poll that says people are opposed to impeachment, they're opposed - people think impeachment is removal from office. Impeachment isn't - it's sending it over to the Senate - and if - and Tom Delay is making the argument that look - our job is sending it over to the Senate, and the other argument they're making is - how would we have looked if right after the election we drop it, we say, oops, sorry - everybody would have said, we really weren't sincere at all, it really was just political. I think in some respects this is the best this Congress has looked because for once -
JIM LEHRER: It's stood up.
PAUL GIGOT: -- it's ignored the polls and said we're going to do it and we're going to do it because we believe in it.
JIM LEHRER: See you later. Thank you both.