Persisting reservations about Clinton will only be fueled by Jones' charges

May 08, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Veteran political consultant Peter Hart likes to call President Clinton "the Indiana Jones of American politics" -- he gets into one scrape after another but always seems to emerge unscathed. But whether the president can escape the Paula Jones case without some political scarring is an open question.

An opinion poll conducted for Cable News Network last week -- in the days just before Ms. Jones filed her lawsuit in Little Rock, Ark. -- found that 71 percent of Americans believed the sexual behavior of the president before he took office was "not relevant," compared with only 22 percent who said it was.

And 67 percent said the news media should leave such stories in the private domain.

But the capital has been awash all week in speculation about the political impact of the accusations Paula Jones has brought against Mr. Clinton, speculation made even more intense perhaps by the fact that there are no true precedents by which the impact of her story can be judged.

And what the political professionals know is that voters, whatever their professed distaste for stories about the personal lives of politicians, are still likely to factor them into their judgments of any candidate.

A leading Democratic consultant who asked to remain anonymous said, "It's not that people are being bluenoses. It's just that it's still more of the same old thing."

Mr. Hart, a Democrat who conducts polls regularly for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, has found Mr. Clinton already viewed with reservations by the electorate.

"The problem is on the day he was elected people had doubts about his character and values, and that never changes," he said.

At the same time, Mr. Hart noted, these reservations don't

prevent the president from getting consistently high marks for -- the goals he has set for the country and for the initiatives he has taken to achieve them.

There is some temptation to compare the Paula Jones case to the Gennifer Flowers episode during the New Hampshire primary campaign in the winter of 1992. When Ms. Flowers charged that she and Mr. Clinton had conducted an affair over several years, ** polls and focus groups found that voters were angry first at Ms. Flowers for making such an accusation in public and then at the news media for giving her charges so much attention.

No one in politics would be surprised at a similar response now, as the CNN poll suggests. Voters may be suspicious of the politicians, said Mr. Hart, "but they are no less happy with the press."

The political context today is, however, quite different from that when the Flowers affair developed. At that time voters in New Hampshire were preoccupied -- some might have said obsessed -- with the precarious condition of the economy and their own job security. That meant that the attention given Ms. Flowers was seen as a diversion from serious business.

Candidate Clinton responded by forcing the public discussion back to the economy, health care and education -- the issues by which voters wanted to measure those who were running.

And, although he lost standing because of his clumsy handling of questions about his draft history, Mr. Clinton rode out the personal charges to finish a strong second to Paul Tsongas in the primary and declare himself "the comeback kid."

That kind of instant vindication from the electorate is not available to the incumbent president today.

Moreover, as another Democratic campaign strategist put it:

"This comes after Whitewater and all that stuff, so it's going to be seen as more of the same and it will make people wonder."

The immediate White House response seems to have been designed with that New Hampshire history in mind.

Robert S. Bennett, Mr. Clinton's lawyer, quickly labeled the whole thing "tabloid trash" and blamed "the politics of destruction" -- the same line that Mr. Clinton's surrogates have been using on Whitewater and related matters for months.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have no reason to do anything but watch from the sidelines and let the story take its own course.

In an interview with The Sun last week, for example, former Vice President Dan Quayle said Republicans would be "well advised just to leave it alone" and added, "The media will have to cover these allegations."

William Kristol, a leading Republican theorist and former Quayle adviser, issued a memorandum to "Republican leaders" saying the charges "will no doubt further damage the president's already fragile moral standing" but advising them to do "not much" in pressing the case but to rely instead on providing a positive agenda for voters.

As a practical matter, nonetheless, the accusations made by Ms. Jones have provided some fresh ammunition to Mr. Clinton's critics on the far right who give great weight to what are called "family values" issues.

More to the point, even the more restrained Republicans who are publicly silent now can be counted upon to use the morality issue, at least obliquely, against Mr. Clinton in the 1996 'u campaign -- something they were afraid to do in 1992 lest they be accused of playing negative politics when the economy demanded so much attention.

However it plays out, the Paula Jones story already is a staple for the late-night television comedians Jay Leno and David Letterman. And among political pros, it is axiomatic that being the butt of their jokes is never good news.

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