I want to give you a little sample of what is, has been, and looks like
it is going to continue to be the problem with the way in which the Republican leaders articulate the importance of the Clinton crisis.
For a long time I have been saying that one of the reasons that the public
mind is so strangely confused on this issue is that from the beginning the Republicans have sent “business as usual” messages about this crisis. They have acted as if it doesn’t matter to them. And since it doesn’t matter to them, there are many people in the country who say “hey, look: those are the guys who have the biggest ax to grind. If there were something really wrong, they would be telling us so. And so there must not be something really wrong, because they don’t care.”
This is how the Republican leadership has been behaving. In particular,
Rep. J.C. Watts, the new spokesman for the Republican congressional majority, behaved this way on Fox News Sunday over the weekend. He was asked about the impeachment hearing with Judge Starr last week. And I was appalled at some of the implications of his remarks. Here is the key part of what he said about the task ahead of the Congress regarding impeachment and the impact of the Starr testimony:
“As I’ve said, we need to look at the facts, at the evidence and the law
and the Constitution. Now, the facts and the evidence, the law and the Constitution, might determine that we should send it to the Senate for impeachment hearings. The facts and the evidence, the law and the Constitution, might determine that we should censor the president — and
I don’t know who would make that determination. Or, the facts and the evidence might determine that we throw it out and get on with it. But I do believe that we will draw that conclusion sometime before the end of 1998.
“Well, I saw probably 10 minutes, total, of the entire hearing. But my
position has been very consistent: I will look at the facts, the evidence, the law and the Constitution. And if that merits impeachment, or sending it to the Senate for an impeachment hearing, I will sure do that.”
Having been asked his opinion of the impact of the Starr testimony, this
Republican leader begins his answer by noting that he may have watched 10 minutes of it, altogether. What message does that send? It sends the message that “I don’t care about this; it’s not really that important.” It sends the same kind of message that Bob Dole sent when he said that he didn’t look at the party platform in 1996.
He keeps saying he is going to “look at the facts and the evidence, and
the law and the Constitution.” But if he is serious about looking at the “facts and the evidence, and the law and the Constitution,” don’t you think he would have paid attention to more than 10 minutes of the time when the individual who conducted the whole investigation was called by the Congress of which he is a part to come and tell him about that investigation? And if he was serious, wouldn’t he have paid more attention to that testimony particularly before he went on a Sunday morning talk show, where he knew he would be asked questions that would bear on it? Apparently not. He might at least have listened to the opening statement, but he didn’t bother.
I think that it is this kind of attitude that has helped to create a climate of deep confusion, and a “don’t care” attitude, in the mind of the American people. Many people have reasonably reached the conclusion that if the Republican leadership doesn’t care about this, it can’t be that important.
If you are in the midst of a crisis — such as if your house is burning
down — do you respond to a question about it by saying that you paid attention to the fire trucks for 10 minutes? No, you don’t. And if you do say such a thing, it must mean that the house is not really burning. There can’t be anything really wrong, because you would be more excited about it if there were.
So if this nonchalant, “we don’t really care” attitude comes from the
Republican leadership — and in this particular case it comes from the person just elected to be the key spokesman of the Republicans — what effect do you think it is going to have on the public mind?
I was also appalled for another reason. If Jay Leno had gone out on the
streets of New York and put a microphone in front of somebody, and they had given an answer such as this, I might be able to excuse it. But Congressman Watts is sitting in the Congress, and he is going to be a key spokesman for the Republicans. He should care enough to inform himself about the nature of the process. And yet when he describes the process, he gets it fundamentally wrong.
He said: “Now, the facts and the evidence, the law and the Constitution, might determine that we should send it to the Senate for impeachment hearings.” But, of course, anyone who has paid attention to this process at all — particularly one sitting in the House of Representatives — knows that the Clinton matter is not going to be sent
to the Senate for “impeachment hearings.” It is the House that impeaches — the Senate conducts a trial, as is explicitly stated in the
Constitution. On Sunday we had the fourth-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives speaking as though he hasn’t even bothered to look at the Constitution, and doesn’t understand the most basic elements
of this process.
Many defenders of the performance of the Republican leadership constantly make the excuse that the media “interferes” with the Republican ability to get their message across. And yet on Sunday we had a Republican leader sitting on Fox News Sunday with a clear shot at making the case to everyone watching the program. Nobody was going to interfere — all he had to do was make sense. And he didn’t make sense, and acted like he didn’t care about the crisis of the Constitution, the moral fabric, and the integrity of our whole political system.
Some will no doubt think that these are small points, and that I am nit-picking. But I am not. People who care about these matters will take the trouble to inform themselves enough so that the language they use is precise.
There was a man who was impressive in this regard last week. Judge Kenneth Starr was grilled for 12 hours, and I never saw a man more serious about his duty — and it showed clearly, because his language was
precise. And that was not because of some technical legal skill he has, but because he cared enough to get involved with the details of the issue, and to digest them, so that he would make sense when he spoke about it. That is what we should expect also of the Republican leadership when they approach this critical issue.