WASHINGTON -- How does a Republican leader keep secret that his party has a last-minute surprise in store for the Democrats? In the case of U.S. Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, he lies to reporters.
As the NRCC was preparing to unleash a yet-undisclosed $10 million GOP ad blitz exploiting the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Linder met on Tuesday with a dozen reporters for an on-the-record lunch arranged by Bill Press, co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," and Marc Sandalow, Washington bureau chief of the San Francisco Chronicle. With a week to go to the congressional elections, Linder, the man in charge of the House Republicans' campaign, told reporters Monicagate would have little to do with the election, and for Republicans to focus on it "could be overkill."
"Nothing is driving the elections," Linder told the journalists. Not HMOs, he insisted, not Social Security, not taxes. And not the Monica mess. What Linder didn't tell reporters was that three hard-hitting GOP Monicagate ads were already produced and ready for a last-weekend attack.
Linder told the group -- which included journalists from CBS, the National Journal, the Washington Times and Salon -- that he did not view the election as a referendum on impeachment. "If that were anywhere in the cards," he remarked, "it would be on every single campaign's television commercials." But most political advertising had eschewed mention of the scandal, he noted. After one of the reporters mentioned that North Carolina Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth had produced ads playing off Monicagate, Linder said, "I have no idea what Senator Faircloth is using it for."
The Republican campaign leader was explicit in denying any interest in turning Monica into ammo. When Press asked what national strategy the NRCC was adopting for the last week of its so-called Operation Breakout, Linder replied, "We are testing some messages tonight [with focus groups] and we will see. But we really haven't made a final decision on that." He promised that the House Republicans' message would be "very broad."
But why not stress the scandal, one participant inquired, if he believed, as he said he did, that Monicagate would lower Democratic voter turnout? "If our candidates all pick up the cudgel to beat up on the president," Linder answered, "it could be overkill. It could be overkill, and it could backfire." He said that the final wave of NRCC commercials would focus on issues.
Yet just as Linder was maintaining Monicagate could not be used effectively as campaign fodder, his outfit was readying an assault based on the Lewinsky scandal. In fact, the ads were in the can. In one of the 30-second spots, one woman says to another, "What did you tell your kids? ... It's wrong. For seven months he lied to us." Another commercial shows the infamous footage -- without the audio -- of Bill Clinton wagging his finger when he declared he had not had "sexual relations" with Lewinsky. A third asks, "Should we reward [Democrats for] not telling the truth?" These ads are being broadcast in some of the largest media markets in the nation.
The New York Times and the Washington Post uncovered -- or were leaked -- the GOP's Monica-bombing strategy after Linder met with the reporters, and both papers published stories on Wednesday. Presumably, Linder had not wanted to tip off the Democrats as to what was heading their way. But was he purposely putting out a false story to journalists hoping he could mislead the opposition? The NRCC did not reply to a request for an explanation. But, according to Sandalow, NRCC communications director Mary Crawford asserted to him that Linder had not spoken untruthfully because the new ads are not focused on the scandal -- an observation that anyone who has seen the commercials will have trouble believing.
Linder didn't have to mislead or lie. He could easily have said, "I'm not going to detail our final campaign initiative." He's entitled to plot strategy in secrecy. But he gave a roomful of reporters -- myself included -- the distinct impression that House Republicans were still cooking up their finale and that Monica-politics was a losing proposition. It was a surprise -- even by Washington standards -- to have a politician so blatantly trash a strategy that he himself was employing, especially since everyone would soon learn he was not being truthful. Ads do not stay secrets. And, after the news of the ads broke, Linder disclosed on CNN that he had decided on Monica-izing the election 10 days previously. He's lucky he wasn't under oath at the lunch.
"It's amazing how little interest there is in this election in any single district," Linder told us. "There are districts where candidates are working their butts off, but there's no evidence that it's engendering any enthusiasm. There's no enthusiasm out there ... There's very little driving this election." That's partly because Linder's GOP colleagues went out of their way in the concluding weeks of Congress to smother any substantive differences they have with President Clinton in order to deny him and the Democrats issues on which Democrats could campaign. Republican advocates labeled this "a tactical retreat"; a less polite description would be "cowardice." Whatever it's called, the Republicans made certain that the campaign would be less burdened than usual by substance.
This election could set a record for low turnout. But Linder does not have to fear a substance-lite, low-turnout election. That works to the GOP's advantage, since, even as Linder acknowledges, Republicans do better when turnout is down. Pulling out Monica in the last days is an attempt to rally die-hard Republicans, alienate everybody else and depress turnout even further. That's how the game is played.
It's hardly a shocker that the issue-less GOP would take this course and exploit the president's troubles. But if they're going to make an issue out of lying, the guy in charge could have the decency not to lie about their strategy.