GOP Speaks Out Against Clinton
Leaders' Criticism Breaks Silence on Allegations
By Thomas B. Edsall and Terry M. Neal
Republicans are worried that Clinton's favorability ratings have shot up past the 70 percent level in some surveys, despite the unprecedented charges that have been leveled against him. GOP leaders are also under pressure from party loyalists to speak out on the controversy dominating television and newspapers for the past 10 days.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) began to open up on the president with the political equivalent of small gun fire, while Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) and former education secretary William J. Bennett both lobbed hand grenades.
In open defiance of Republican strategy calling for elected officials to keep their distance from the situation, Ashcroft told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Crystal City: "It is time for us to worry less about what is right for the party and more about teaching young people what is right and what is wrong. It is time for us to say what we know to be right, to say: 'Mr. President, if these allegations are true, if these allegations are true, you have disgraced yourself, you have disgraced this country, you have disgraced the office, and you should leave.' "
Bennett, whose brother Robert S. Bennett is one of Clinton's defense lawyers, told the gathering of about 1,000 conservatives: "If you were caught in this situation and you had not done it, your reaction would not be the reaction that we saw from the president. You would have said this is outrageous, this is ridiculous. I don't do that sort of thing." If the president "did do this, he has lied straight to us and he has destroyed the basic trust between the American people and its president."
Lott and Gramm were less explicit in voicing their suspicions, but their comments went further than the general GOP approach of maintaining a hands-off stance.
"I refuse to believe that the American people are willing to dismiss conduct like this that's alleged, if it's true," Lott said. He described the president's recent poll numbers as "inflated, they will be coming down." If the allegations are proven "false, the president will be vindicated. . . . If they are true, or even parts or them are true, it's very serious and I don't think the American people are going to stand for it."
Along similar lines, Gramm, in an interview at the CPAC event, said: "If you were mayor of College Station [Tex.] and you were accused of something like this and you looked the people of College Station in the eye and said 'I didn't do it,' if it turned out you did do it, you couldn't stay in office as mayor of College Station." If the charges against the Clinton prove true, "the president will have no credibility with the American people."
While most critical of the possibility that Clinton lied, Republicans suggested that they consider allegations that Clinton had sex with a young White House intern as damning. Lott, for example, said that if "even parts [of the allegations] are true," the public would find it intolerable. "I believe something tawdry went on, I believe he had some kind of sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky," Bennett said.
The Republican strategy of silence was adopted with an eye toward the November elections on the theory that the crisis would be pushed forward by the independent counsel, the news media and the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit against the president. If Republicans were seen to be adding fuel to the fire, the theory went, it would only make the issue look partisan and lessen its impact.
There are, however, other pressures on a number of Republicans -- especially those seeking the GOP presidential nomination and those seeking to serve as voices for the conservative, bitterly anti-Clinton wing of the party.
Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, for example, is competing with Ashcroft for support in the race from the social conservative wing of the GOP, and he too is more vocally critical of Clinton. "The president's silence on this issue is deafening," Forbes said yesterday at the CPAC meeting. "We were promised the most ethical administration in history. Look what we've got."
Another prospective GOP candidate, Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, is scheduled to speak at CPAC today, but as the flood of criticism of Clinton began to build, Bauer released the text early so as not to get drowned out: "If a president is willing to exploit vulnerable women who work for him, then he cannot be trusted to protect the vulnerable in society. . . . If the charges being investigated prove to be true, President Clinton must resign."
Even as the GOP strategy of silence on the Clinton controversy was loosening among these Republicans, Christina Martin, spokesman for House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), said he and other House leaders are sticking firmly to their policy of avoiding direct comment, a stance confirmed by House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), who told reporters: "I got nothing to say about them [White House officials] on that [the charges]."
And outside of Washington, several GOP leaders and consultants said yesterday that it was best to leave it alone and concentrate on building the party by expounding on its issues.
Iowa Republican Party Chairman Steve Grubbs said: "We have gained [in elected office] every year since 1992, and we've done it by comparing with the president on issues. I hope we stay focused on issues, because we're not going to win with any personal problems the president is having."
A number of state GOP officials said in interviews yesterday that there was little to be gained from attacking a lame-duck president with proven resiliency, especially considering the dearth of facts in the case. However, should more damning evidence emerge, the party should be ready to shift its strategy and go on the offensive.
"I thought the smart strategy was to keep our mouths shut," said Indiana GOP Chairman Mike McDaniel. "Instead of getting frustrated, we should let this one play itself out." Florida Party Chairman Tom Slade said: "You never ever get in trouble keeping your mouth shut."
Atlanta-based strategist Ralph Reed had a different take: While it is best for the GOP as a whole to avoid attacking Clinton, the party should designate "someone who is beyond reproach personally, and who is widely respected" to take the vocal, moral high-ground "The base is physically sick about this. They want to know that their leaders care."
Then there was Republican Mayor Paul Helmke of Fort Wayne, Ind., president of the Conference of Mayors. At the same time the president was being attacked at CPAC, Helmke was at the White House giving Clinton a warm introduction. "He's someone whose heart's been in the right place. He cares about our country, he cares about our communities, he cares about our people. I am honored to know this president," Helmke told his fellow mayors.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company