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  • Direct Access: Q & A With
    Prof. Larry J. Sabato

    Friday, January 8, 1999


    Larry J. Sabato, professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia was LIVE ONLINE today answering your questions and discussing the impeachment proceedings in the Senate. Sabato is director of UVA's department for governmental studies and has written several books including "Dirty Little Secrets: The Resurgence of Corruption in American Politics" (1996) (with Glenn Simpson) and "Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics" (1993).

    Here is a transcript of this afternoon's Q&A:



    Alexandria, Va.: What do you think the economic ramifications would be if Clinton were removed from office?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: Virtually none. His successor would continue essentially the same policies, and after a brief, if marked, dip in the stock market, stocks would recover nicely. No one is essential, not even presidents.


    Alexandria, Va.: Can the Senate vote for conviction of the president and then have a second vote to determine a punishment that is not removal from office?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: In a word, yes. Contrary to those claiming that censure is unconstitutional, it is perfectly constitutional. The Senate may do whatever it likes in this matter. Or at least that is my reading of the Constitution.


    Alexandria, Va.: Dear Larry,

    I once heard you say, in 1995, that Bill Clinton was a man of "questionable character." But that was all you would ever say. So this is my chance to pin you down, finally. Do you think the House was correct when they impeached him? If so, should the Senate remove him? Or perhaps you think he should resign. Please explain your answer(s).

    Sincerely,

    Steve A. Camarota
    former Teaching Assistant and Host of American Government 101 at UVA

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: Hello, Steve. I saw you on TV not too long ago, and you looked great.

    In fact, I am so overcome with good feeling and memories that I cannot even recall your question, and therefore cannot answer it.

    No, really – it would have been better for all concerned had Clinton resigned shortly after the Lewinsky matter became public in January. One of Clinton's most desirable qualities is his intelligence – and also his energy. But his least desirable qualities have been on display of late – especially shamelessness. Impeachment and conviction are another matter, however. In order to have such a drastic move accepted by the country, there must be bipartisan support for it, and broad popular support for it. Neither condition is present, and therefore I believe it would be an unwise move. So in sum, resignation, yes, impeachment and conviction, no.


    Fairfax, Va.: Do you think it is ethical for senators to make any public comments regarding the trial in the Senate? What about the peculiar situations of Sens. Bunning and Schumer, who voted on impeachment in the House?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: Yes, it is ethical for senators to say whatever they like, though discretion is warranted from a political perspective. And most senators have been quite discreet. I also have no problem with Sens. Crapo, Bunning and Schumer voting twice. This is not so much their choice as it is the people's choice. Please remember – this is in no sense a regular trial under criminal procedures with which all Americans have become familiar. This is the most special kind of trial designed for the most special person in our constitutional system: the president.


    washingtonpost.com: Do you think that President Clinton stands a better chance of avoiding conviction in this Senate, given that both Sens. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) – staunch Clinton opponents – lost their seats in the last election? Or since the ratio of Republicans and Democrats didn't change in the 1998 elections, do you think that will make any difference?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: Given the fact that 67 votes are required, and that the party ratio is the same, the relatively small overall change in personnel will not make much difference. Absent new information, it is almost impossible to get to the 67 to convict, and the new information would have to be very powerful.


    Manassas, Va.: Why does the term "partisan" only seem to stick to Republicans?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: It shouldn't. "Partisan" applies to both sides, and there should be nothing wrong with the term. I support political parties. But the Republicans are taking action that is unpopular. That generates criticism, inevitably, even though I find it admirable that for once politicians are not slavishly following the polls.


    Winterville, N.C.: Has any study been done to record the amount of misleading or incorrect information pumped out by CNN or MSNBC on any given day? As a former reporter, I am amazed by the fluff sent over the airwaves by reporters and guests alike.

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: You make a good, valid point, and undoubtedly once the trial is over there will be some content studies done along the lines you suggest. You might want to contact the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. Among others, that center has done some excellent content analysis in the past.


    Raleigh, N.C.: UVA Alum, loved your 101 class...

    Why has Clinton remained popular in public opinion polls? Personally, I think part of it is the media coverage of the whole course of events, which has saturated the public to the point where people just don't care anymore and would rather just see an end to the entire process. I'd like to hear your opinion. Thanks.

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: Hello, and Wa-HOO-Wa!

    I hope you remember from AP101 that politics is a good thing.

    Actually, we discussed in that class the overarching importance of the economy in explaining the popularity or unpopularity of the president and the political system generally. While Clinton may have had little to do with it, we are in the midst of one of the most golden economic moments in our history. People feel great, their pocketbooks are full, and rightly or wrongly, they give substantial credit to the sitting president.

    Keep in mind, also, that we live in an MTV culture, and that the public attention span has a half-life of two weeks, shrinking with every passing year. I agree that the public is "sick of this," but believe it or not, so are many members of the press and punditocracy! The explosion in news outlets inevitably means that a big story floods the airwaves in a way that it could not 20 or 30 years ago. That helps to explain all Clinton, all the time.

    Good luck to you.


    Hackettstown, N.J.: While not an eternity, two years is a long time in American politics. Assuming that the president will not be removed from office, do you believe that the Democratic Party will be in a position to reap electoral gain in the 2000 elections, particularly those for the House? Will public outrage over the impeachment of the president contrary to sentiment expressed in polls come back to haunt the Republicans?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: I always tell people that he who lives by the crystal ball ends up eating ground glass. I'm not smart enough to predict what's going to happen tomorrow, much less two years down the pike. I remember when we all said that the Persian Gulf War vote in 1990 was the most important vote in a generation and would undoubtedly result in a score of political casualties. My memory is that not a single congressman or congresswoman lost as a result of that vote. So much for predictions. I wish I could tell you more, but I cannot.


    Oklahoma City, Okla.: Would it be desirable, or possible, for that matter, for the Chief Justice to admonish members of the House who seem to want to tell the Senate how to conduct this trial?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: I enjoyed your question. Chief Justice Rehnquist is an exceptionally bright man, and therefore you can be certain that he will utter not one word that he does not have to utter. He will say nothing to House members, and he will let Sen. Lott et al. deal with the members from the other body.


    Takoma Park, Md.: Dear Prof. Sabato,

    Thanks for participating in this online forum. My question is the sequel to the question of "How did we get here." Specifically, "How do we get out of here?" This trial and impeachment circus has gone far enough. There are important global crises to be dealt with by the political leaders of the United States of America. How can we get our "representative" government focused on the best interests of the American people again – and out of President Clinton's pants?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: I can't think of many Americans at this point who would want to be in President Clinton's pants – interpret that as you will.

    Call me a hopeless optimist, but I am convinced that this awful event will be over in its entirety within a month to six weeks, at the most. Were you as surprised as I was by the comity displayed by the House on the first day of its new session. Dennis Hastert is soothing balm for a hurting House. I doubt the Senate ever descends to the same depths, so less reparation will be necessary. The Senate will eagerly and quickly move on to other subjects the instant the Clinton matter is concluded.


    Smithfield, Utah: It seems in my reading of the Federalist Papers and other books on the Constitution that the House of Representatives decides what is an impeachable offense and the Senate then decides whether the accused is guilty of those offenses. Or does the Senate also rule on whether the offenses rise to the level of impeachment?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: A good and essentially unanswerable question.

    There is no absolutely clear guidance in either the Federalist Papers or the Constitution on this subject. The reason we have all referred to former congressman Gerald Ford's dictum that "an impeachable offense is anything the House says it is" is because Ford had it right, at least operationally. The people have not chosen to elect many political theorists, but they have elected 535 political realists.


    Bethesda, Md.: Do you think that the media has caused this escalation of events to be at this point in time? If not, why? I asked this question yesterday to Robert Kasier and his response was that the media has been most cases fair and not to be blamed for escalating this frenzy.

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: You already know the answer that the author "Feeding Frenzy" is going to be. By the way, the book makes a wonderful holiday gift.

    Most reporters coming from respectable news organizations have basically done a good job – as they always do – throughout the Lewinsky scandal. But increasingly, the 10 percent of the reporters and organizations that are less responsible are getting the lion's share of attention. They drive the news. They accelerate the news cycle on a scandal. And they lower the lowest common denominator in journalism. Could you ever have believed that a big piece of the news would be created by a porno publisher? That is the sad state in which we find ourselves.


    Richmond, Va. : Who do you think will emerge in the Senate with an enhanced reputation once the trial is over? Who should we watch?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: The easy answer is that no one will have an enhanced reputation after this trial. But if I had to guess, I would say that Sens. Lott and Daschle are off to a very good start in trying to keep the trial bipartisan. Furthermore, while some of his speech may seem archaic, Sen. Robert Byrd has a great deal to contribute to the debate. And he will earn his pay if he can repeatedly challenge senators to rise above nasty partisanship. There will be others who will shine, but for this observer at least, the future is unknowable.


    Vienna, Va.: Turning to Virginia politics, how would a vote to acquit President Clinton rebound on Sen. Charles Robb in his reelection bid?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: Sen. Robb really has very little choice in the matter. He will need the strong support of Democratic activists to turn back the very strong challenge of former governor George Allen. It would also be nearly impossible for Sen. Robb to vote to convict President Clinton, given his own well-publicized scandal problems. However, in an odd way, the senator has had his fortunes improved by Clinton's lows. By comparison to Clinton's multitude of moral sins, Robb's offenses increasingly appear venial.


    Reston, Va.: How do you think women voters, who proved pivotal in recent elections, will react to the trial in the next presidential election?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: One of the most reliable political indicators in recent decades has been gender. And there is no reason to think that will change soon. It is possible that if the Republicans nominate Elizabeth Dole or another woman for the GOP ticket that women might reconsider their disproportionate loyalty to the Democratic party. But barring that, this scandal seems to have reinforced a Democratic partisan identification among women.


    Chicago, Ill.: Some people despise President Clinton as if he were the devil incarnate, while others defend him to the death. What is it about him that inspires such contrary passions?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: Another great question that I've thought a good deal about.

    Clinton is the most divisive president since Nixon. This puzzles people who have known Clinton well since college, and others who know that his greatest motivator is an insatiable desire to please. How remarkable and ironic that a pleaser has become such a polarizer! You asked why. Part of it is the well-publicized culture wars that Clinton represents. He has all of the sins of the '60s counter-culture, all of which are still deeply resented by those not part of that counter-culture.

    But there's another reason. We've all known a Bill Clinton. And I've certainly had more than a few in the classroom. They cut and trim and have seven explanations in descending order of credibility for all of their faults. Over time, this character flaw is not just revolting, it is infuriating.


    New York, N.Y.: If the President were to be convicted by the Senate, would he be able to appeal the conviction to the Supreme Court?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: No. There is no appeal under the Constitution from the decision of the Senate. If Clinton were convicted, Gore would become president instantly.


    Spotsylvania, Va.: Do you see the impeachment proceedings as having been a healthy or unhealthy process for this country? In your opinion, does this process indicate a trend in social discourse?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: The process has been one of the most depressing and dismaying events in modern American history. But for that, I do not blame the Congress as much as I blame the one man who could have prevented it all, and who has been warned dozens of times by family, staff and friends over 30 years to avoid occasions of sin – Bill Clinton.


    washingtonpost.com: That was the final question for Larry Sabato. Thank you very much for joining us today. Any final thoughts about what we should all be looking for in the next week?

    Prof. Larry J. Sabato: This has been great fun, with some terrific questions.

    As events unfold in the next few weeks, let's remember to listen carefully to real events and tune out much of the interpretation and punditry. And I say that as a pundit.





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