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GOP Strategy Calls to Keep Quiet

By Thomas B. Edsall and Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 24, 1998; Page A14

The basic Republican strategy for dealing with the sex and perjury controversy engulfing the White House is to let President Clinton tie a noose around his neck and watch from the sidelines as the media yank the rope.

Since allegations about Clinton's relationship with a former White House intern broke three days ago, most Republicans have said nary a word in an extraordinary display of restraint.

"This isn't our story. We don't have a role in it," said Christina Martin, who runs press strategy for House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "We need to follow the [Lee] Atwater adage: If someone is busy shooting themselves in the foot, don't interfere."

GOP media specialist Mike Murphy, normally a hardball player, said he is telling clients to "shut up and say nothing. If Republicans start yapping, all they do is give the White House guys a partisan reason to duck and dodge."

Clifford D. May, communications director for the Republican National Committee, sent a memo yesterday to all Republican press secretaries on Capitol Hill cautioning them to "be circumspect in your comments and advise your principals to be so as well."

In a case study of Republican commitment to the strategy of silence, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) insisted that his only comment on the record would be to say that he would have no comment on the record.

Some, however, are breaking the code of Republican reticence. Two prospective candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, both conservatives stressing traditional moral and family values, spoke out directly and critically.

Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) said the allegations, as well as previous Clinton controversies, were sending a bad moral message to Americans and "just driving home the wrong things." Ashcroft said that if the allegations were proven to be true, "it would be incumbent on the House to look at impeachment."

Similarly, Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, said: "Character is an important part of the presidency. When news reporters have to warn their viewers that they might want to take their children out of the room because of the stories coming on about the president, that is tragic for this country."

Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, who has been seeking to build support on the right, described the allegations as "serious charges" requiring Republicans to "fill the leadership vacuum," according to aides. Forbes has indirectly raised the issue of impeachment, noting that Congress "must then carry out what its constitutional duty calls for," they said.

Unlike congressional and party strategists who are looking toward the general electorate in their determination to avoid the appearance of partisanship, Forbes, Bauer and Ashcroft's potential presidential bids are currently targeted at conservative Republican primary voters who want to be fed red meat.

Among those following the mainstream strategy, the only person the Republican leadership has granted an exception from the code of omerta is House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), whose panel would be the first to take up impeachment proceedings.

Keith Appell, a Republican public relations operative, said party leaders have warned that "everyone should keep their mouths shut, except Henry Hyde." The party has learned, he said, that the louder and harsher its criticism of Clinton becomes, the more likely the public is to dismiss the matter as partisan bickering.

Hyde, according to GOP sources, is supposed to limit himself to "matters of procedure," although Republicans are fully aware that when a committee chairman publicly uses the word "impeachment," it gives the press a fuller license to explore the possibility of such action.

Appell noted that this issue also differs from recent scandals that were largely ignored by television: The latest allegations have received saturation coverage. "There's no point in trying to spin any further. The White House is completely on the defensive already. The media have been covering it like no other story."

GOP pollster Bill McInturff warned that unlike other scandals, this one may not have the kind of partisan consequences that others, especially Watergate, had. "When you unleash something like this, you stop getting rational data. . . . This deals with personal behavior in a way that nobody believes touches Vice President Gore or any other Democrat in terms of their personal behavior. You cannot begin to predict what is going to happen."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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