The ripple effect and its threat to Bill Clinton

September 09, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Just 20 years ago Patrick Caddell, a polling expert advising President Jimmy Carter, began to worry about what he called "the ripple effect."

Criticism of Carter within the Beltway was growing daily and Mr. Caddell was convinced that unless it was checked, it would soon ripple out to the rest of the country and compromise Mr. Carter's prospects for a second term. Mr. Carter took the warning seriously enough that he began a determined campaign to strengthen his position with Washington insiders.

As it turned out, Mr. Carter never succeeded and the view of him as a weak and ineffectual leader did indeed ripple out to the rest of the country. His favorable ratings in opinion polls gradually declined and made him vulnerable to the defeat he suffered in 1980 at the hands of Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.

That bit of history is worth recalling as political professionals here grope for answers to the stunning difference in the way President Clinton is regarded by those whom poll-takers call "the elites" -- meaning political leaders and opinion-makers from the news media -- and by ordinary Americans.

Among these so-called "elites," Mr. Clinton is viewed in extraordinarily harsh terms. Sen. Joseph Lieberman said publicly last week what many others are saying privately about Clinton --that he behaved indefensibly in having a sexual relationship with a White House intern and now has made things worse by refusing to show genuine regret for the troubles he has caused for himself and his personal and political allies. No one of prominence is defending him, and there is spreading talk of censure by Congress, efforts to force him to resign the presidency and even the possibility of impeachment -- although both resignation and impeachment are viewed as far-fetched.

By contrast, the opinion polls through the Monica Lewinsky episode have continued to show the president with approval ratings of 60 to 65 percent for his performance in office, if not for his personal qualities. In short, there has been no sign of a ripple effect.

So the question being debated all over Washington these days is not only about when the opinion of the "elites," as voiced by Mr. Lieberman, will reach the rest of the country but whether it will happen at all.

Most of the politicians and their handlers are operating on the assumption that the folks back home ultimately will come to share their harsh view of Mr. Clinton. That is why so many of those Democrats running for re-election Nov. 3 are putting distance between themselves and the president -- and, by the same token, why so many Republicans are growing increasingly vocal in their criticism of the president.

It is possible, of course, that the country may never share the insider distaste for Clinton's behavior. Americans are a lot more suspicious of anything coming out of Washington these days than they were when Mr. Carter was in power 20 years ago. So they may be paying little or no attention to what they are seeing on their television screens and reading in their newspapers.

It is also possible, however, that the information about the president's conduct has not yet reached critical mass -- some point at which the voters say enough is enough.

All along, the experts on polls have been arguing that Mr. NTC Clinton's high performance ratings were being sustained by the robust health of the economy. The voters would not be diverted, the theory goes, by something they regarded as largely a private matter involving the president and Monica Lewinsky.

But no one knows how far that tolerant attitude extends, however. Will Americans be just as willing to look away if the investigation produces more specific evidence of gross behavior by the president? Will they remain tolerant if it appears the president lacks the moral authority to function effectively in dealing with Congress?

The "elites" already have decided that Clinton deserves their scorn both for his behavior and for seven months of denying his guilt. But it is the electorate at large to whom Bill Clinton must answer.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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