Public welcomes probe of Whitewater, polls say



WASHINGTON -- The latest round of public opinion polls suggests that the voters are sorting things out in ways that send clear messages to the White House.

The first is that the charges of sexual misconduct made against President Clinton by two Arkansas state troopers have been dismissed by most voters as either lacking credibility or essentially irrelevant to his performance in office.

The second is that there are indeed a lot of questions out there about Clinton's connections to the Whitewater Development Corp. that now presumably will be answered by the special counsel.

Both a Washington Post-ABC News and a CNN-USA Today Gallup poll found the president's approval ratings comfortably above 50 percent and, most importantly, about where they were a month ago before those Arkansas state troopers charged that as governor Clinton used them to facilitate sexual encounters.

The reasonable inference that can be drawn from that finding is that most voters found the charges of sexual misconduct lacked credibility or were basically irrelevant to his performance in the White House.

But the surveys also found evidence that suggests voters will applaud the decision by the president to yield to the growing pressure and direct an independent inquiry into the Whitewater issue.

The CNN poll found, for example, that 71 percent of Americans were not sure one way or the other whether Clinton had been guilty of misconduct. And the Post-ABC survey found 61 percent who believed there should be an investigation.

On the Whitewater issue, the poll findings clearly coincided with the consensus in the political community that the president had no choice except to yield on a special counsel.

The tipping point may have been when a number of Democratic senators -- including such prominent figures as Daniel P. Moynihan of New York and Bill Bradley of New Jersey -- called for a special prosecutor.

The survey findings also made it clear that the public was not buying the argument from the White House that the whole thing was being trumped up by Republicans for partisan reasons.

For the White House, the new surveys should be highly encouraging because they show an electorate still focused on important issues -- the economy, crime, health care -- rather than on stories about his personal troubles.

This tolerant attitude gives Clinton the right context for the decision to seek an independent investigation.

For one thing, it allows him to forestall any further direct discussion of Whitewater and the Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan on the grounds the controversy is now out of his hands. The president can simply say that his decision reinforces what he has been saying all along -- that he has nothing to hide.

The decision also will put a halt -- temporarily at least -- to the flood of stories about the political incompetence of the White House in handling the Whitewater affair. Whatever it accomplishes now, the naming of a special counsel would have accomplished a lot more earlier in terms of building confidence in Clinton's advisers.

The curious thing about the White House political advisers is that they can be so smart in some ways and obtuse in others. Because of their experience in the Gennifer Flowers episode, they understood from the start that they could probably simply ride out the allegations from the state troopers.

Thus, Clinton avoided getting into dealing with any of those specifics except to deny offering anyone a federal job for silence. And now the polls have shown that strategy was exactly the right one.

But the White House always has access to unpublished polling data -- daily tracking the public mood in periods of stress. So you have to wonder why it took the president and his advisers so long to recognize there were many doubts in the electorate about Whitewater that had to be resolved.

The message from the voters is obvious: We have an open mind on this thing but we need to have some answers to our questions.

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