Clinton on Trial

Great Expectations

I had been starting to feel elegiac about the end of Flytrap–what does a poor scandalmonger do if there is no scandal left to monger?–until the Republicans’ latest act of lunacy. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is asking Kenneth Starr to investigate a rumored White House taping system. Lott wants to find out about a system that may or may not exist, recording conversations that may or may not have occurred and, if they did, may or may not have been incriminating. (What exactly does Lott expect? “So, Vernon, let’s make this absolutely clear. I want you to get her a good job so that she won’t turn on us. I also want you to get her to sign a false affidavit. I am going to lie to Paula Jones’ lawyers about her. And, in case anyone ever asks, I touched her breasts and genitalia with intent to arouse.”)

Lott’s latest fishing expedition will undoubtedly follow the pattern of the past few months. It will briefly thrill the faithful and intrigue the media, then it will wreck on reality’s shoals (uh, there are no tapes, senator), sending the GOP’s approval rating still lower. The fishing expedition, in fact, suggests a new theory for why Republicans have blown Flytrap so badly: expectations failure.

Perhaps the GOP has lost because it overpromised. Perhaps the president has won because he underpromised. This is a Wall Street theory of politics: If you beat earnings expectations–no matter how low they are–the market boosts your stock. If you don’t meet expectations–no matter how absurdly high they are–the market pounds you.

For the first eight months of 1998, the Republicans delivered what was promised, and the president suffered. Rumors were corroborated. Monica really was a 21-year-old intern! They really did conjoin in the Oval Office! There really were tapes! Kathleen Willey materialized on cue to confirm that he was, indeed, the Oval Office lech. The blue dress, which everyone assumed was a canard, magically appeared.

The good times didn’t last. Gleeful conservatives began packaging every rumor and wish as fact. Journalists followed credulously. I just looked back at Flytrap stories from mid-August (including my own), and it’s incredible what was expected: that Clinton wrote the talking points, that Bruce Lindsey would be indicted, that a second intern and even a third would go public.

These expectations were never met. The Starr report ignored the talking points and Lindsey. No more interns were produced. Starr quietly dropped Whitewater, Travelgate, and Filegate. The Republicans keep stretching–the disastrous attempt to fold the campaign finance investigation into Flytrap, Lott’s search for new tapes. But each time they fail to deliver, they undermine themselves still more.

As for the White House, no one expected anything from it. How could they defend the indefensible? But the White House lawyers poked holes–pinpricks, actually–in the Republican case. They scored with Monica’s “No one ever asked me to lie” line. They turned the prosecution’s own cell phone records against them. They revealed the GOP’s bias in choosing whose testimony to believe. By delivering slightly more than nothing, they made the president’s case viable. And by delivering somewhat less than everything that was promised, Republicans made the prosecution’s case terminal.