With defeat almost certain, Bob Dole raised an anguished question late in the 1996 campaign: How could a president so often accused of misconduct be so popular? “Where is the outrage?” he demanded.
The question is back. Frustrated by President Clinton’s record-high poll numbers, conservatives suggest that the Monica Lewinsky controversy may reveal as much about Americans as it does about their president.
“He has winked at his own behavior and invited us to wink back,” self-styled Republican moralist William Bennett told the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Many Americans have decided, for their own reasons, to follow him downhill.”
Former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes said, “If the American people are right now handing approval to a president who has brought us as low as this president has, then they do not pass a judgment on the president - they pass a judgment on themselves.”
Conservatives are baffled by polls showing a seemingly contradictory view of Clinton: While many voters don’t believe his denials about an affair with Lewinsky, a majority of Americans believe he has the honesty and integrity to serve as president.
Three out of five respondents to a recent Los Angeles Times poll agreed that it is possible for Clinton to behave unethically in his personal life while maintaining integrity in his presidential duties. A slightly larger number didn’t think he should resign or be impeached if he was lying about an affair with Lewinsky.
The most conventional explanation for the disparity is that most people are so busy making money in boom times that they’ll forgive Clinton his peccadilloes - or, as conservative think-tank attorney Ann Coulter puts it, the attitude seems to be, “He lied to us, we don’t care, our mutual funds are doing well.”
But some commentators believe there’s something else at work here - that many Americans with no great love for Clinton nevertheless believe that the President is the target of a sexual witch-hunt; that a politician’s lie about sex is far less serious than, say, a lie about taxes or weapons sales; and that the traditional right of privacy is being trampled by overzealous lawyers and investigators, who in turn leak their juiciest findings to a complicit media.
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic, said Monday: “Sex is supposed to be a private matter, and people resent it when privacy is invaded. People lie about sex all the time, in order to keep it private. If the President can get the support of everyone in this country who ever had a sexual affair and lied about it, or got the other person to lie about it, he’ll do just fine.
“Look at this Paula Jones civil suit. Witnesses are called in for depositions, the lawyers ask anything they want, and there’s no judge to decide what’s relevant or not. And I think many Americans say to themselves, ‘Gee, if that was me, I wouldn’t want to get asked about “my” sex life.’ You might not be inclined to answer it truthfully. You might just say to yourself, ‘That’s none of their business.’ People can still relate to that notion.”
Basically, she thinks a lot of Americans still believe that “private sexual conduct should not be the business of law” - particularly, she said, when federal investigators see fit to wire their witnesses to ferret out sexual information.
Another explanation for the confusing polls may reflect a presumption of innocence, and conservatives expect Clinton’s support to plummet if credible evidence emerges against him.
“The American people are still waiting for information. That’s OK. That’s understandable,” said Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition. “But as more information is known, I predict his approval rating will drop like a lead balloon.”
“American people are very honest and patient and want to give people the benefit of the doubt,” said William Beckman, a conservative voter from Lake Mills, Wis.”Even I, a person with an extreme dislike for Clinton, don’t want to see him hanging in effigy.”
Democrats, led by the White House, look at the polls and declare that voters are interested in Clinton’s programs - not his sex life.
“They know this: The president has proposed an extraordinary agenda. They support that and they want us to get the work done,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said Monday.
Pollster Andrew Kohut agreed: “Most people are focused on the good times and the fact that Clinton has done many of the things they want. They don’t want to deal with this.”
With rhetoric bordering on contempt, Bennett calls such a rationale selfish.
“He’s disreputable, but the economy is going fine, we’re getting more day cares and we’re getting a toll-free domestic abuse hot line,” Bennett said with a mocking tone. “So we close our eyes and just vote for him. That’s a lesson in corruption.”
Ann Martin, 18, a conservative college student from Lynchburg, Va., said the public’s attitude leads her to worry about the country.
“When we have a leader who lies, what does it say about us?” she asked. “When we don’t care, what does that say about our ability to choose a leader?”