It’s Pat!

Is Pat Moynihan a Flytrap flip-flopper? In an exclusive interview that appeared Christmas day in the New York Times, Moynihan said that ousting Bill Clinton might “very readily destabilize the presidency.” Moynihan, reached by phone while he was allegedly thumbing The Federalist Papers, told the Times’ Richard Berke, “We are an indispensable nation and we have to protect the Presidency as an institution …. You could very readily destabilize the Presidency, move to a randomness. That’s an institution that has to be stable, not in dispute. Absent that, do not doubt that you could degrade the Republic quickly.”

The media mostly praised Moynihan’s comments, as they usually do whenever Moynihan tosses a rhetorical thunderbolt from Olympus. The senior senator from New York, intoned the Times editorial page, is “a student of the Constitution” who has provided “an astute analysis of the case … Coming from a man who has not hesitated to part company with Mr. Clinton on numerous occasions and is not seeking re-election, this advice ought to carry great weight with the Senate.” Newsday, which had been screwed by the Times exclusive (but which had reported the day before that Moynihan was working on a censure deal), said “We should have learned by now to listen very carefully when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) warns about the fundamental dangers of a particular action. He has been right so many times before.”

But Matt Drudge pounced on Moynihan’s statements and wondered in his online column whether Moynihan had “hit the Egg nog early.” Drudge is frequently off the wall, but in this instance it was a good question. He pointed out that Moynihan, asked in January by the New York Post whether Clinton should stay in office if it proved true he’d had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, had said “I should think not. If it’s so, it represents a disorder.” Moynihan had also said in that interview, “We are not talking of Czar Alexander. We have a system of government in which persons move in and out of government … It’s not a constitutional crisis. The Constitution provides for this.”

In the Times interview, Moynihan said: “The question is, ‘Do these allegations rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors?’ ” His answer suggested great uncertainty: “And we will have to judge. We will have to make up our minds. The list, high crimes and misdemeanors, begins with treason, bribery.” But Drudge pointed out that on Sept. 6 Moynihan had appeared on ABC’s This Week and had shown far more certainty on this question:

Will: Is perjury in a civil case by the chief executive officer of the United States an impeachable offense?

Moynihan: Yes.

Will: Is perjury, therefore, I assume in a grand jury–before a grand jury, would be an impeachable offense?

Moynihan: Yes.

(Incidentally, Chatterbox double-checked all of Drudge’s citations.)

This past Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked Moynihan about the seeming contradiction between the senator’s latest statements and his previous statements. Here’s how that exchange went:

Russert: But, Senator, in September you said that lying under oath is an impeachable offense.

Moynihan: Well, it is.

Russert: But it doesn’t mean you have to impeach?

Moynihan: No.

Hmm. Chatterbox, in the holiday spirit, will assume Moynihan is being consistent, and will attempt to impose a logical superstructure. Here goes. Moynihan would like to see Clinton resign, and doesn’t mind seeing him impeached, but is reluctant to have the Senate convict. He thinks by law the Senate could convict, but doesn’t have to. And he doesn’t want to convict because he’s worried Congress would get into the habit and maybe next time convict a president who’s genuinely innocent of an impeachable offense. Which Clinton is not.

Cautionary footnote: While deft diagnosis is Moynihan’s strong suit, prescriptive consistency is not. Here is Mickey Kaus (himself a former Chatterbox and a veteran Moynihan-baiter) reviewing Moynihan’s Miles to Go: A Personal History of Social Policy in the New York Times Book Review in 1996:

Time and again, if you trace back the social debacles decried by Mr. Moynihan, you come upon the unmistakable figure of … Mr. Moynihan. Who drafted the “final submission” of the interagency commission that recommended what proved to be the disastrous deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill? Who was “ruinously wrong” in voting for the Reagan tax cuts that created the deficit that starves government of the “resources that a new era of social policy will require”? Who during the crucial early months of 1995–a period not much discussed in the book–neglected to organize Senate opposition to the Republican “welfare repeal”? And surely a good example of “defining deviancy down” is Mr. Moynihan’s guaranteed income plan, the essence of which was to be nonjudgmental and send cash to any poor parent, married or single.

–Timothy Noah