The Magazine

THE MYTH OF GOP DEFECTORS

Dec 14, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 13 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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IF YOU'VE BEEN READING THE PAPERS RECENTLY, you know there is no way the House of Representatives can impeach Bill Clinton. Republicans allegedly don't have the votes. Two days after impeachment hearings began on November 19, representative Peter King of New York announced that not only was he planning to vote against impeachment, perhaps 40 of his Republican colleagues were set to do the same. I'm one of them, said John Porter of Illinois, who went on to raise King's estimate of impeachment-averse Republicans to 50.


In the weeks since, there has been some debate in the press over how many Republicans will actually vote against impeachment, but a virtual consensus holds that the number will be high. Days after his initial prediction, Rep. King told Jack Newfield of the New York Post that he personally knew of "15 to 20" Republican members who were "rock solid" opponents of impeachment. By last Thursday, the estimate had changed again, with the New York Times and various cable outlets quoting an unnamed but presumably knowledgeable Republican source who pegged the number at 12. Peter King was sounding as authoritative as ever. "The vote on impeachment will not pass," he declared.


The nose counting continued. The only problem was, none of it was accurate. In fact, the number of Republican House members who have declared their opposition to impeachment stands, as it has for more than a month, at precisely five: Jack Quinn of New York, Mark Souder of Indiana, and Chris Shays of Connecticut, as well as Porter and King. But what about the dozens, maybe scores of renegade Republicans news stories keep referring to? As it turns out, most of them appear to be Peter King.


It's easy to see how the confusion arose, since what King lacks in corroboration he makes up in vehemence. "Some of the people on Starr's staff," he tells me solemnly, "are definitely political hitmen. These guys get their kicks from indicting politicians. The untrammeled power of a prosecutor is more of a threat to the country than a president who commits perjury in a civil case." Impeachment over the Lewinsky matter "would set a dangerous precedent," King explains. Instead, "the president should definitely be censured" for his lies to the American people. Indeed, says King, Clinton should receive "a full censure and condemnation from the House."


It's not clear exactly what "a full censure and condemnation" is, but according to King, support for it is snowballing. "John Porter keeps telling me he thinks there could be as many as 40 or 50 [anti-impeachment Republicans] once it actually comes to a head," he says. And who is rallying the full-censure-and-condemnation wing of the party? That would be Mike Castle of Delaware, King confides. "Castle is probably doing the most among moderates to see how many [votes] he can get together."


If so, this is news to Castle's office. According to his staff, Castle did once chat with King about censure. But that's it. Somehow, in the retelling, this single phone conversation became a lobbying campaign, then a groundswell. "Someone is going around using my boss's name," says an irritated Castle staffer, who adds that Castle has definitely not decided to vote against impeachment.


Mike Castle isn't the only Republican member to receive credit for a decision he has not yet made. Over the past several weeks, news reports have incorrectly identified half a dozen or more Republicans who supposedly plan to vote against impeachment. Michael Forbes of New York, Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Brian Bilbray of California, Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, Marge Roukema of New Jersey -- all have knocked down rumors that they are on the King Team. Roukema became so exercised when she heard her name paired with King's that she requested air time on CNN to make the case for booting Clinton from office. If the president lied under oath, Roukema explained, "I am certainly inclined to vote for impeachment. I think it's our constitutional obligation."


Why have so few Republicans joined King? The president's provocatively evasive answers to the 81 questions he recently received from Congress are part of the reason. If Clinton had seemed more contrite, says Ken Johnson, political director and press secretary to representative Billy Tauzin, censure might still be an option. "In Louisiana," says Johnson, "we have great affection for repentant politicians. But this guy has not been repentant, he has not been remorseful. He's been belligerent, and that has made it very difficult to find an alternative to impeachment."