Paul Newman gave us one of those immortal movie moments in "Cool Hand Luke" when, in the face of a homicidal prison guard, he thoughtfully proclaimed, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." The guard then shot him dead.
While national Republican leaders are not facing as dramatic a set of circumstances, they are in a serious communications predicament: how to respond to the continuing investigation of President Clinton. Republicans have not spoken with a unified voice, and their response has ranged from hands off to talk of impeachment, and has alternated in criticism and defense of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. Their inability to communicate effectively has given Clinton's defenders greater freedom in their successful attempts to manipulate the media and mobilize public support for Clinton.
The problem with GOP leaders isn't one of political will or competence, but rather the elusiveness of a unifying message that must pass three crucial tests simultaneously: rallying the GOP faithful, particularly conservatives; staying credible with the media without sounding unduly partisan; and limiting the amount of fodder that feeds the Clinton attack machine's claims of a vast right-wing conspiracy.
So, in the spirit of party teamwork, here is a message for the leadership to consider.
First, focus on the Clinton "legacy."
Before the Lewinsky blowup, Clinton and his spin squad were advancing notions of a grand Clinton legacy based on policy achievements. But Clinton, in good Nixonian fashion, has soiled his own nest, and whatever achievements he might have claimed, he will be remembered instead as a president bereft of a moral compass. Clinton will forever have to live with a reputation as a sexual predator, slippery fund-raiser and shady personal dealer. Republican leaders will ring true with the party faithful and drive Clinton crazy if they refer, time and again, to this moral bankruptcy as his true legacy.
Second, talk about the impact of Clinton's behavior on his fellow Democrats.
Internal GOP polls show dramatic declines among key Democratic constituencies in their approval of Clinton as a person, and corresponding declines in the generic vote for Democratic congressional candidates. This data as well as other damaging public opinion information should be fed to the media on a continuing basis. Despite claims to the contrary, national Democratic fund-raising is way off and the Federal Election Commission is about to release its quarterly fund-raising reports, which will support this assertion.
The truth is, President Clinton has practically annihilated his party. Here is the body count so far of how many fewer Democrats are serving in office since Clinton was elected in 1992: 12 U.S. senators, 53 members of Congress, 14 governors, 446 state legislators and 21 legislative majorities. Also, 372 Democratic Party officeholders defected.
The "Clinton is hurting his own party" story line will be irresistible to the media and cause further dissension in the Democratic ranks.
Third, GOP leaders should stay on the offensive on the topic of Kenneth Starr and his multifront investigation. Starr has been the second most successful independent prosecutor in history and has put 14 people in jail so far in what "Grassy Knoll" Blumenthal and other Clinton apparatchiks have for years claimed is no big deal. The consistent obstruction of the Clinton White House in turning over documents and other information is the reason Starr's investigation is taking so long and is why Fred Thompson's Senate hearings into Clinton fund-raising abuses never got off the ground.
In airing these reminders of Starr's success and Clinton's pattern of obstruction with one respective voice, GOP leaders will be able to hold the media accountable in holding the president, his wife and their handlers accountable for behavior that Republicans in the White House would never have been allowed to get away with. Imagine the media outrage if, at a crucial time in a sensitive investigation, documents sought under subpoena for two years suddenly and miraculously appeared in the White House family living quarters and the trail led indisputably to Barbara Bush? Or, even worse, to Nancy Reagan?
Finally, GOP leaders should avoid all talk of impeachment or censure. When the facts are in, the American public will decide if President Clinton is to be punished and the message to the Congress will be crystal clear: Let it go, or let him go.
In the meantime, Republicans need to speak with a unified voice. Otherwise, their hopes for regaining the White House will, like Paul Newman's character, be dead.