The tide turns -- again

A week into the impeachment trial, Senate Republicans may be looking for a way out that doesn't embarrass their colleagues in the House.


Joshua Micah Marshall
January 23, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

WASHINGTON -- After a week of hanging tough in the face of relentless criticism from the House managers, on Thursday the White House felt the tide of the impeachment trial moving measurably, if not decisively, in their favor. Democratic Senators even allowed themselves to indulge some hope that the process could be stopped short of calling witnesses -- a hope that had seemed beyond reach only a few days ago. Even Christian conservative Pat Robertson told his fellow conservatives on Wednesday that it may be time to pack it in. And Thursday ended with some speculation that the question for Republicans might no longer be how to continue the trial to its full extent, but how it could be brought to a dignified conclusion without humiliating its chief architects, the House Republicans.

On Thursday the president's personal lawyer, David Kendall, came out punching. He introduced himself to the Senate as the lawyer who had represented Clinton through what he called the "tortuous and meandering Whitewater investigation." But after Kendall's methodical refutation of the obstruction count against the president, Clinton's team concluded with perhaps its best weapon: Dale Bumpers, the recently retired Arkansas senator and personal friend of the president. Bumpers had an advantage that no other presenter had. He was a club member talking to the club; he could address his listeners as his "colleagues"; when describing how his reverence for the Constitution slowly grew over years in the Senate, only he could have turned to the chief justice and sheepishly admitted it was "fairly arcane to me" when he studied constitutional law at law school.

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He brought the Senate back to the central issue in Clinton's defense: His moral lapses were crimes against his family, perhaps, but not the country. "It was a breach of his family trust. It is a sex scandal," Bumpers said. He quoted writer H.L. Mencken, who said, "When you hear somebody say, 'This is not about money,' it's about money. And when you hear somebody say, 'This is not about sex,' it's about sex."

All of this is in some contrast to where matters stood over the weekend, when the House managers concluded their initial presentation. Late last week, commentators were giving the House fairly high marks. Most agreed that Rep. Asa Hutchinson's presentation of the factual case against the president was especially well articulated and persuasive. Listening to Hutchinson walk listeners through this phone call and that, this job offer and that, this deception and that, even the staunchest defender of the president might have had to admit that this case had a ring of credibility about it.

This week, though, the Clinton defense demolished much of the factual case against the president, as well as the attempt to prove his offenses are impeachable. Lindsey Graham's faux-folksy presentation hit a low mark when he tried to convince the Senate that a "high crime" was nothing more than when "a high person hurts a person of low means." He had lawyers, scholars and journalists re-reading the Constitution to find grounds for that formula.

Chief House manager Henry Hyde tried to paint a picture of even grander proportions. For Hyde, the trial of president Clinton is an epochal turning point that will decide whether mankind continues to build on Magna Carta, the Constitution and the 20th century's epic battles against totalitarianism or slip back into the primordial slime. In his concluding remarks, Hyde called on the assembled senators to cut short Clinton's war on the rule of law in the names of the "political prisoners" and "the families of executed dissidents" around the world.

But Hyde went too far. For all the Republicans' outrage, and their many invocations of God, morality and patriotism, they lacked the emotional impact and gravity of Charles Ruff's evocation of his father's landing at Normandy, or Bumpers' homespun but gripping description of saying goodbye to his parents as he boarded an early-morning bus to enter service in World War II. They demolished Hyde's claim that acquitting Clinton would let down soldiers who had fought and died to defend the rule of law.

But Clinton's lawyers poked holes in much of the House's case on the facts as well. Cheryl Mills challenged the chronology of the events that forms the basis for the obstruction case against the president, showing that the actions of Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan and Monica Lewinsky had been either misstated or misinterpreted by the House managers. At the end of the day, what is most striking about the conclusion of the trial presentations is just how little had changed. On the merits, the entire exercise could fairly be called a moderate success for the White House. But in a larger sense, it's really one more example of a story line we've seen a lot of in the Lewinsky crisis: the story of the shoe that didn't drop. The case against the president turned out to be much less formidable than anticipated, and the momentum has swung back in Clinton's favor. Again.

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This has all led to a certain bounce in the step of Democratic senators as they leave the trial proceedings to go out and meet the press. The new question seems to be: How can Senate Republicans find a way out of going on with a full trial, with witnesses, without embarrassing their colleagues in the House. On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Democrats received polling data that only encouraged them to take a strong line against a full trial. The data confirmed the steep declines in the voters' trust in the Republican Party that public polls have shown. Democrats even got better ratings on core Republican issues like tax cuts. One Senate Democratic aide, who until recently had doubted the impeachment mess would have much effect in 2000, told Salon he was struck by how much recent events have convinced voters that Republicans are little more than an anti-Clinton party.

The polls also discouraged Senate Democrats from taking the cautious, defensive and almost docile tone they have frequently adopted through the course of the impeachment proceedings. That approach, they were advised, may hurt them by implying that they have something to hide.
For much of the last year, Democrats -- and particularly those in the Senate -- have operated on the assumption that somehow, some way, the other shoe would finally have to drop. Either more anti-Clinton information would surface or the cumulative weight of evidence would finally turn the public against the president. But even at this late stage that hasn't happened.

Pollsters are telling Democrats that the public does not see the Senate proceedings as fundamentally different from the partisan proceedings that took place last month in the House. And thus Democrats are being counseled to be neither defensive nor mild-mannered, and to voice their concerns over efforts to drag out the trial. The chief political concern of Senate Republicans -- not humiliating their friends in the House -- does not seem to be an issue for American voters. All of this leaves Senate Democrats with less and less reason to compromise with Republicans on the various procedural debates and votes that will arise over the coming days.


Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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