Will Screening of Clinton Testimony Backfire Against GOP?
WASHINGTON — Today, as millions of Americans click onto TV and Internet images of President Clinton testifying about his secretive White House affair, Republican strategists are standing by with their fingers crossed.
Indeed, the controversial decision by the GOP-dominated House Judiciary Committee to release Mr. Clinton's videotaped Aug. 17 grand-jury testimony - and 2,800 pages of sometimes sexually explicit evidence - marks the first test of a major Republican political gamble.
Will the public recoil against the GOP-led Congress, affirming polls that show most Americans oppose the release of the video and say that Clinton should not be impeached? Or will public opinion sway in favor of the mainstream Republican view that Clinton committed perjury and impeachment proceedings are warranted?
"There is some risk of a [public] backlash," concedes Ed Gillespie, a Washington-based GOP strategist. "Nobody likes bad news, and the risk is that they shoot the messenger." Indeed, the momentum of public opinion is moving toward the GOP view. "The more people see and know about this," Mr. Gillespie says, "the less likely they are to believe the president."
The public's `right to truth'
On Capitol Hill, Republicans upheld the ideal of transparency to defend Friday's party-line vote to release most of the appendix of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on alleged abuses of power and other illegalities by Clinton.
"The American people have the right to know the truth," said Rep. James Rogan (R) of California, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. He was among several Republicans who stressed the public should gain unfiltered access to Starr's materials. "We should not play 'hide the ball' with the American people," he said.
Asked how damaging the release of the video is likely to be to the president's image, Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, replied: "That's for you to decide. That's why we're releasing it."
Judiciary Committee Democrats, citing polls showing Americans oppose the video release by more than 2 to 1, charge that Republicans are ignoring public concerns over graphic sexual details and other objectionable content in a partisan move to discredit Clinton.
"This process has been designed for maximum possible embarrassment of the president," says Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York. Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts said the committee had become nothing more than "a transmission valve for attacks on the president."
Republicans countered that such views are extremist, pointing out that House Democrats broadly supported a vote earlier this month to release all Starr report materials that were not specifically withheld by the committee for being injurious to innocent parties. Most Democrats on the politically polarized committee voted against the release.
Nevertheless, Republican analysts acknowledge that the GOP runs a risk by acting contrary to public wishes. But they say the risk is outweighed, on one hand, by the danger of alienating core party constituents who favor the aggressive pursuit of impeachment.
"It is risky for Republicans, but they have no choice," says Amy Moritz Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative Washington policy group. "If they do nothing, their own base will blame them and not turn out on election day." Republican legislators are reporting high volumes of calls, letters, and e-mail messages from constituents - and likely voters - who support an impeachment inquiry.
On the campaign trail
Rep. Steve Buyers (R) of Indiana, also a member of the Judiciary Committee, suggested that any public backlash would be directed not at Republicans, but at Democrats "who act like criminal-defense lawyers and try to protect" the president. At the same time, GOP tacticians say they hope to "educate" the public about Clinton in advance of the November elections. "People don't like to be confronted with the president's unseemly behavior, but it's important," Gillespie says.
Democrats contend that the gradual release of the Starr investigation materials, along with the inevitably drawn-out impeachment proceedings, is a kind of "water torture" designed to "keep the president continually off balance and besmirched" as the midterm elections approach, says Mary Cheh, a law professor from George Washington University here.
Indeed, if no decision on impeachment is reached before November, Ms. Ridenour predicts, "it will be a very strong Republican year." Republicans are already expected to gain as many as 15 seats in the House.
As GOP candidates weigh whether to use video footage from the Clinton testimony in campaign ads, Democrats say they will keep focused on platforms and other issues. "If it's a choice between a candidate obsessed with schools and a candidate obsessed with scandal, that's a choice we don't mind," says Olivia Morgan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.