Dark Times Getting Darker for Clinton

James P. Pinkerton is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. E-mail: pinkerto@ix.netcom.com

As Bill Clinton faces his difficult post-Monica future, he has to be concerned about three different audiences. The first likes him, the second dislikes him and the third will determine his fate.

The audience that likes Clinton is the general public. The president's job approval rating, averaged across six different national opinion polls conducted since the release of the Starr report, is 64%. To be sure, the public takes a dim view of Clinton's character; the new CBS poll, for example, found that just 28% think he shares the moral values that most Americans live by.

What's going on here? Evidently, Americans have a basically libertarian, or perhaps libertine, view of public life. To the extent that most people think about Washington scandals, they seem to regard them as Jerry Springer-type entertainment. And yet Americans are clear on one key question: They do not want to see Clinton leave office prematurely by either resignation or impeachment. Indeed, the reason that Clinton's ratings stay so high could be that people want to reinforce him against unwanted removal.

The audience that dislikes Clinton is the media and political elite. Even a casual student of the political talk shows or op-ed pages soon learns that the punditocracy has turned strongly against him; in the words of Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, the talkers and scribblers "almost universally despise Clinton." But why, when they're overwhelmingly Democratic? Mostly, it's a sense of lost opportunity, the feeling that Clinton's gross indiscipline forfeited a chance for a second New Deal or New Frontier.

Moreover, the Georgetown-based establishmentarians feel that Clinton lied to them personally. In politics as in poker, if there's not a minimum level of trust, there's no game. And outside the Beltway, leading opinion isn't much better. The Associated Press counts about 80 newspapers--including the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News--that have editorialized for Clinton's resignation.

As for the political elite, last week's 363-63 vote in the House to release the steamy details of the Starr report is indicative of Clinton's support on Capitol Hill. Top Democrats are reluctant to openly express their deep-felt wish that the Man from Hope would go back home, but under cover of anonymity they are more outspoken; on Tuesday, CNN's congressional correspondent Candy Crowley quoted one saying: "You'd have to be a daredevil, or a moron, to go out on a limb for this guy."

With the elites and the masses on opposite sides of the Clinton question, who will be the tiebreaker? The voters. And they are something of an exclusive club, too. In the last midterm election in 1994, about 193 million Americans were old enough to vote but just 71 million did. The last midterm in which even 40% of the voting age population actually cast a ballot was 1970. To put these numbers another way, three-fifths of those being surveyed by pollsters are effectively irrelevant to the discussion.

So the difference between those who answer a question from a pollster and those who answer the call to civic duty can be enormous. Late last month, a Battleground Poll jointly conducted by Democrat Celinda Lake and Republican Ed Goeas found that the GOP had a 3-point lead over the Democrats in the crucial if-the-election-were-held-today question. But, Lake writes, "Democratic voters, demoralized by President Clinton's problems . . . may choose to stay home on Nov. 3 while Republicans may turn out at average or higher than average levels." Lake concludes that the Republican advantage among "likely" voters--respondents who say that they have voted frequently in the past and are closely watching this year's election--is 6 or 7 points.

This leads Ron Jensen, a Republican election analyst, to predict that the GOP will gain six Senate seats and 25 House seats and a fistful of governorships, bringing Republican strength to historic levels. If so, then the current haggling over the release of the videotape of Clinton's grand jury deposition--and even the question of congressional censure--will prove to be merely a light overture compared with the heavy crescendo of criticism and investigation that will come with the next Congress.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World