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Clinton Team Counted on Public Opinion To Sway House

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 23, 1998; Page A01

    A few days before President Clinton would be impeached last week, his extended defense team dialed in for its daily strategy conference call. With the outcome of the vote seemingly preordained, the mood was demoralized, the ideas scant.

    "It was so pathetic," one member of the team said after hanging up. "No one had anything to say except the pollsters." Their message? "Everything's great." Indeed, as he has throughout the crisis, pollster Mark J. Penn told the lawyers and political strategists how the public remained strongly behind Clinton in his impeachment fight.

    Yet never had the disconnect between those numbers and the far disparate political reality in the U.S. Capitol been more clear. Heartening as they were, the polls were doing nothing to save Clinton from becoming only the second president to be impeached. As this presidential adviser explained how matters had gotten so out of hand, there was no hesitation: "The mesmerizing power of Mark Penn."

    Penn may have been the messenger, but he was hardly the only one in Clinton's camp to take too much comfort from the president's strong poll numbers. As his team sifts through the wreckage of the House's votes and begins preparing for the next stage when the matter moves to a Senate trial, many inside and outside the White House are trying to answer a variation on the half-century-old question that echoed through Washington after China's revolution: Who lost impeachment?

    The answer, typically, is more complicated than the question. As some Democratic strategists see it, there were tactical mistakes, such as the legalistic, don't-give-an-inch answers to 81 questions from the House Judiciary Committee and the president's failure to get more involved in lobbying moderate Republicans who could have made the difference. There were strategic choices, most prominently Clinton's adamant insistence that he did not lie under oath and would not admit doing so to broker a deal to avert impeachment.

    And there were factors completely out of the hands of the White House, namely the unexpected leadership void among House Republicans after Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) abruptly stepped down three days after the November mid-term elections -- a vacuum filled by one of Clinton's bitterest foes, Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

    But in hindsight, many White House advisers and their Democratic allies have concluded that their biggest error was being lulled into a false sense of security by the polls and their party's unexpected successes at the ballot box on Nov. 3.

    "The reaction from the election was intoxicating to the point that they thought there was enough momentum coming out of the election that the House and maybe even the committee wouldn't vote out impeachment," said former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, who has been regularly advising his former colleagues. "And there were some who even thought they could get acquittal" without any reprimand at all.

    "Clearly they thought -- I think everybody thought -- they're not going to impeach a guy if the public doesn't want him impeached," said Carter White House press secretary Jody Powell, who also advised the Clinton team.

    The reliance on public opinion, which has remained strongly in Clinton's court from the beginning, obscured the fact that impeachment had become an insider's contest, some strategists said. Yet the White House was not willing to risk that popularity by playing the insider's game the way some wanted to do.

    Clinton himself said the night after he was impeached that his biggest mistake was not pressing moderate Republicans to commit publicly to oppose impeachment in the weeks following the election, when the environment was most favorable to him.

    But in a conversation with Los Angeles Times reporter Elizabeth Shogren at a White House holiday party Sunday night, the president said he thought his support among the public stemmed from its belief that he is focused on his job, meaning that he would have lost ground in the polls had he gotten more directly involved in his own defense.

    For that reason, according to Shogren's account in yesterday's Times, Clinton said he went ahead with his four-day trip to the Middle East just as the House was preparing for its vote, even though some advisers wanted him to cancel and stay home to mount a vigorous fight for his job.

    Predictably enough, as the vote approached, House Democrats began grousing about what they saw as the president's cavalier attitude. Some said Clinton should have secured a censure deal ending the crisis shortly after the election when the moment was ripe. Having failed to do that, they said, he at least should have tapped prominent Republicans to approach GOP lawmakers who were persuadable.

    "You'd think you'd get someone who knows how Republicans tick," said one House Democrat. "As things started to fall apart, there was no strategy to get them back."

    As Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), a new member of the Republican leadership team, saw it, "The White House didn't work this very hard in the House, quite frankly."

    With Clinton not playing much of a role, his defense was left largely to lawyers; until his hastily arranged Rose Garden apology just nine minutes before the Judiciary Committee started voting Dec. 11, his only public comments during the deliberations were the written answers to the panel's 81 questions. Drafted mainly by attorneys worried about making concessions that might further expose Clinton to possible criminal prosecution by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, those answers gave no ground to Republicans. And their tone was argumentative to the point that they even quarreled with the committee's assertion that Clinton as president is the nation's chief law enforcement officer.

    As a result, the answers ended up reenergizing the pique among Republicans who were convinced that the president was not genuinely contrite about his past deceptions. And by waiting to turn them in just two weeks before the Judiciary Committee vote, some Democratic strategists said, the White House left too little time for the anger to wane.

    "It sent exactly the wrong signal," said Panetta. "The Republican hard-liners jumped on that and said, 'There's no real apology here. There's no recognition of the wrongdoing.' It gave them leverage to really work the moderates."

    Rep. Thomas M. Barrett (D-Wis.), a Judiciary Committee member, agreed that "the 81 questions served as a rallying cry for Republicans." But, he added, the White House had little choice. "Short of admitting what they wouldn't admit, I don't know how they could have done it differently. They were caught between a rock and a hard place on that. I don't know how he could have appeased Republicans with any single statement."

    Even so, some Democrats believe that left the terms of the debate on the wrong level. Clinton's defenders had a harder time when the argument focused on the meaning of words such as "sexual relations," "alone" and "is." White House lawyers were left in the position of maintaining that Clinton misled but did not lie.

    "The president's team got caught in an argument about legalism that was abstracted from broader questions of what was good and bad for the national interest," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "Clinton wins the argument on the big points, not the small points. They let the Republicans fight this in the clinches. That's not Clinton's strength in this argument."

    Yet for all of the second-guessing, there is some sentiment among Democrats that nothing they did would have made a difference in the face of GOP determination to take Clinton's scalp. DeLay's involvement ensured that pro-impeachment forces would be strong. And the decision by DeLay's fellow Republican leaders to block a vote on censure meant that Clinton had no alternative to offer moderates who wanted to express their disapproval of his conduct without necessarily removing him from office.

    "The broad brush strokes were almost inevitable, in my opinion, because of both parties' use of the politics of criminality and scandal to try to win what they couldn't win at the ballot box," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), another Judiciary Democrat. While some of the details might have changed with other tactical approaches, he added, "It's like saying a Greek tragedy would have been [different] on a different Greek island."

    Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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