"It's time to speak out"

Re: the Clinton scandals, confidential GOP memo urges Republicans to go on the attack.

By David Corn
Published April 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

A "confidential" memo written by an influential GOP pollster and consultant urges Republican members of Congress to break their silence and "speak out" on the sexual allegations swirling around President Clinton.

The memo, a copy of which was obtained by Salon, was sent recently to Republican members of Congress by Frank Luntz. "It was right not to rush to judgment," Luntz writes in the four-page memo. "It was right to let the media carry the weight of investigation. It was right to give the president time to respond. But ... it's time to speak out."

Luntz, whose polling research contributed to the GOP's "Contract With America," urges Republicans to start asking, "What example is Bill Clinton setting for our children?" He adds that Republicans should strongly support independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whom he says Republicans should publicly refer to as "Judge Starr."

The memo comes at a time when Republican House leaders have begun making harshly critical remarks of President Clinton. In past weeks, Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said that Clinton ought to consider resigning. More recently, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the president might be a sexual predator and Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., head of the Government Oversight and Operations Committee, called the president a "scumbag." On Tuesday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich launched an offensive against Clinton. "We have never seen the level of complex, interlocking lawbreaking that we have stumbled upon the more we look into it," said Gingrich.

Spokespersons for Reps. Armey and DeLay denied the Luntz memo had prompted their critical statements. "I've heard a lot about this memo, but I can guarantee you Tom did not consult a Frank Luntz memo before he spoke out," a DeLay spokesman told Salon. "Members are each doing their own thing. It's always been overstated that the Republicans have an orchestrated strategy on this."

A press aide for Armey also dismissed the Luntz memo: "He sends memos all the time. Very, very regularly. Dick hasn't seen this one." Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican pollster who used to work with Luntz, discounts any link between Luntz's broadside and the Speaker's recent remarks. "They don't even speak at this point," she said.

Luntz was traveling Wednesday and could not be reached for comment. Missing from his memo are any polling numbers or focus-group data suggesting that his recommendation would receive public support. In fact, Luntz acknowledges that an attack-the-president strategy may not enhance a Republican politician's career. "Unfortunately, there will be political consequences if you speak out -- and some of it negative," Luntz writes. "The polls that show Bill Clinton with high job approval scores are accurate. Yet to remain silent any longer is to condone what has occurred."

Driving the point home, Luntz adds: "I cannot tell you that raising questions about the president's actions will be met with universal approval. But I can tell you that ending your silence will be liberating. It will send a message that there are accepted standards of behavior that no one is above -- not even the president of the United States."

Apart from questioning the president's morality and supporting the independent counsel, Luntz recommends specific sound bites to challenge the notion that the alleged scandals don't matter so long as the economy is good. "Money isn't everything," goes one recommended speech. "Let me repeat that. Money isn't everything. A good heart is more important than a thick wallet. Character counts. It's that simple, Mr. President. Character counts. And when character is lost, it's over."

Repeatedly, Luntz advises Republicans to call on Clinton to "come forward" and tell the truth about Monica Lewinsky and other allegations; but he warns against talk of resignation or impeachment. "Do not even mention these words, at least not until Judge Starr has made his report. Americans are fair-minded, and they will rebel if they are forced to make a premature judgment on charges so serious ... But if you are asking for answers, you will have the American people on your side."

Luntz's memo appears to be less a specific game plan and more a reflection of the frustration felt by Republicans who cannot believe that an alleged sex, lies and cover-up scandal, not to mention Whitewater and related affairs, has not brought ruin upon Clinton.

"Republicans are in a terrible bind," said Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster, when asked about the memo. "Politically, they understand that the shrewdest thing to do is to keep quiet and not give credence to Hillary Clinton's charge about the right-wing conspiracy. But they cannot believe all this has not led to the death of Bill Clinton's presidency. They're really angry. They want to grab the public by the collar and say, 'Are you crazy? Don't you see this man is morally bankrupt?'"

Molyneux concedes there may be a case for encouraging Republicans to go on the attack against the president. "Until you try it," Molyneux remarks, "you don't know what a strong offensive will look like and what it will do. You can argue that some leading Republicans need to say harsh things about the president to shift the debate. Sustained criticism could work. But it's very risky and the odds are against it."

Fitzpatrick, the Republican pollster, agrees with the Luntz strategy. "It's the correct advice. Sometimes the obvious has to be stated. That's what Frank's done," she said. "And I always tell clients not to take a poll, but to take a stand. People have to be given the courage to say what they know they should say. And I can show you polling data that shows that beyond approval ratings, there is much vulnerability for Clinton. For instance, only 8 percent of women say that if Clinton were their husband they would trust him completely.

"Our problem is the GOP no longer has enough elected officials willing to lose. There is some prospective downside to taking on the office of the presidency. But winners are people who are willing to lose."

David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton Newt Gingrich Republican Party