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."


Other Republican members simply don't want the trouble that would come with opposing impeachment. Late last month, for instance, the Women's Republican Club in John Porter's home district issued a remarkably bellicose statement demanding that their congressman "cease and desist your inappropriate interference with the due process deliberations of the Judiciary Committee and recant your premature statements that you oppose an impeachment recommendation." Several days later, the conservative weekly Human Events ran the pictures of confirmed and suspected anti-impeachment Republicans beneath the headline, "Meet the GOP's Pro-Prejury Caucus." "Can they be brought back into line?" the story asked. "You can let them know how you feel about it by writing and calling their offices at the numbers listed below." A number of talk-radio hosts made similar pitches to their listeners. During the first week in December, says Peter King, "I was getting an average of 150 phone calls an hour. My office had to close the phones down."


For representative Mark Souder, the heat has been even more intense. A conservative who occupies the same Fort Wayne seat once held by Dan Coats and Dan Quayle, Souder has long been an aggressive critic of the Clinton administration. Last fall, he was one of fewer than 20 Republicans to cosponsor representative Bob Barr's inquiry of impeachment against the president. In January, Souder was among the first members of Congress to call for Clinton (whom he described at the time as a "compulsive liar") to resign over the Lewinsky scandal. Somewhere along the way, however, Souder decided that impeachment (and, for that matter, censure) was a bad idea. It's not clear what happened -- Souder was traveling in Russia last week -- but his critics weren't waiting to hear the details.


Radio host and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes achieved liftoff, announcing that he planned to "personally join in an effort to make sure that every Republican who votes against impeachment faces a primary challenge that will be well funded and that will make clear the point that people who act without integrity at critical moments, when our constitutional lives are at stake, cannot be excused." In a speech last month to the Indiana Family Institute in Indianapolis, Keyes attacked Souder by name. As it happened, Souder's sister was in the audience and was shocked to hear Keyes urge the crowd of 1,200 -- many of them current or potential donors to Souder's reelection fund -- to call Souder's office and complain about his stand on impeachment. "Alan said that Republicans who are wrong on this basically are jeopardizing our country," says Bill Smith, executive director of the Institute. "It was a bit awkward having Mark's sister with us."


And it got more awkward. Souder's sister promptly called her brother in Washington and reported that Keyes had implied he was a bad Christian for opposing impeachment. Souder was livid. Keyes called Souder's office several days later, reaching his press secretary, Angela Flood. When Flood picked up the phone she was surprised to learn that Keyes was in the process of hosting his radio show, which is broadcast to 80 stations nationally and simulcast on the America's Voice cable network. Flood got angry. Keyes berated her on the air for her boss's views. The calls poured in to Souder's office.


Most Americans may want Clinton as president, but there remains a large and energetic segment of conservative voters who badly want him impeached. Not surprisingly, none of the five Republicans who have declared their opposition to impeachment seems particularly anxious to talk about his decision. "He's spending this week with his family," says a spokesman for Jack Quinn, by way of explaining why the congressman will not be available for comment. John Porter, meanwhile, has spread the word that he opposes impeachment not because he sympathizes with Clinton, but precisely because he is so outraged by the president's behavior. (Interested readers should call Porter's office for an explanation.)


None of this intra-Republican controversy seems to bother Pete King very much. "This is not at the intensity of, for instance, a highway bill," he says. "I'm not sensing that there's any pressure at all. I have not gotten one call from anybody in the leadership." On the other hand, King admits, maybe that's because his strategy has worked. "It's like Syngman Rhee told Richard Nixon: 'Let your enemies think you're crazy and they won't bother you.' I think if they think I'm nuts they'll leave me alone, because I might do something worse."




Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.