Clinton's on shaky ground with supporters liking his policies, not his personality

March 03, 1998|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- This is the scandal that was supposed to turn Washington upside-down. Instead it is upending every assumption about politics, power and the press.

This is the scandal that was supposed to confirm all the modern orthodoxies that tied politicians' public lives to their private behavior. Instead, it is rewriting all the theories about political character.

Already it is clear that this scandal is different, and not only because it is the first sensational sex scandal in the White House. It is different because the American people are doing what the pundits constantly criticize them for not doing: They are concentrating more on policy than on personality.

Many Americans -- no, according to poll data, most Americans -- do not like Bill Clinton. But few Americans do not like his policies.

The Washington sex-and-deception scandal may seem as if it has been going on forever, but it is still relatively young; it's in its sixth week, which is early by modern scandal standards. New revelations could emerge any morning. The entire dynamic of this episode could change with fresh evidence suggesting that the president lied, or suggesting that his tormentors relied on deceptions of their own.

But even if we never learn the truth about whether Mr. Clinton had a sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, we have still learned some important truths about U.S. political culture at the end of the century. Chief among them is the surprising conclusion that despite declining newspaper circulations, despite plummeting jTC television newscast audiences, despite troubling voter-participation rates, despite grave worries about how literate and how informed young people are, despite the decline in the nature of public discourse, Americans are paying attention to policy questions.

Satisfaction level

The public reaction to the Clinton scandal may be startling, but it is not irrational. In November 1991, a year before Mr. Clinton was elected president, 34 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going in the nation, and 61 percent of Americans were dissatisfied, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Last month, probably the most difficult month of the Clinton presidency, the figures were almost exactly reversed. Some 59 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going, and 37 percent were dissatisfied.

That's the foundation of Mr. Clinton's support. "It helps to have an economy in its eighth year of expansion," says Richard Fleischer, a Fordham University expert on the presidency. "But if that economy tanks as a result of all this, Mr. Clinton's approval ratings will drop significantly."

As the Iran-contra scandal broke, President Ronald Reagan's approval ratings dropped at their sharpest rate ever. As the White House sex scandal broke, Mr. Clinton's ratings soared.

Mr. Reagan survived by virtue of the personal support he had. People liked him and trusted him, though they no longer regarded him as a good manager.

Mr. Clinton doesn't have that foundation of good faith, and while he is riding high now, he could fall faster and further than Mr. Reagan did. Mr. Clinton, of course, has been enjoying high public-approval ratings for months. Just before the scandal story broke, his approval rating was 60 percent. Now it is 10 percentage points higher. And when the Pew Center researchers went back and canvassed Mr. Clinton's new backers -- half of them are Republicans -- they discovered three reasons for the gain in support: People liked the policies he spoke about in his State of the Union message. They admired his grit in carrying on amid the scandal crisis. And they deplored the tone and content of the news accounts of the scandal.

Reflecting on Clinton

Indeed, Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew survey, believes the news coverage gave Americans an opportunity to think about Mr. Clinton and realize how much they admire his policies. The Pew poll shows that 53 percent of Americans polled don't like Mr. Clinton personally, but 70 percent like his policies.

"People feel a sense of national progress," Mr. Kohut said. "You look at a range of problems and you see that people feel good about things. They feel more optimism and less anxiety. And there's a connection that Mr. Clinton makes.

The Washington scandal has changed our view of the president, his office, the national conversation and the news. This is the scandal that's changed everything.

David M. Shribman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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