The Polls: The Public's Response to the Clinton Scandals, Part 1: Inconsistent Theories, Contradictory Evidence. (Features)

Article excerpt

When the history of the Clinton administration is written, and its place among modern presidencies is assessed, one question will surely require explanation. How was it possible for a president who consistently lied to the public (1) and to his own administration; who was found guilty of perjury for lying under oath while testifying in a civil suit and before a federal grand jury, and who in both cases was guilty of obstructing justice; (2) who personally orchestrated the most massive stonewalling effort since Watergate (3) to keep the truth of his inappro-private behavior from the public; who was believed by the public to have committed the offenses for which he was impeached; (4) and whose behavior would not be tolerated in any CEO, professor, military commander, or anyone in a position of power and responsibility nonetheless manage to maintain high levels of public approval throughout his and our ordeal? (5) Or, to quote the plaintive, puzzled question of Robert Dole, Mr. Clinton's opponent in the 1996 presidential election, "Where's the outrage?"

This is a serious question for a nation committed to giving its leaders wide discretion and relying on accountability to provide constraints. If citizens are now willing to grant the former without exercising the latter, the political culture that has historically provided the foundation for our democracy has surely shifted. A country with powerful executive institutions that declines to hold the occupants of those institutions accountable raises obvious and extremely troubling issues.

Does the public no longer care about the integrity of their presidents? Have they despaired of finding leaders who are both competent and honest? After two decades of intense public concern with "character issues," do they no longer matter? Have other issues supplanted them? Or has the public grown more sophisticated, more cynical, or perhaps simply more realistic? The answers to these questions are not a minor matter.

These concerns originate directly from the public's response to President Clinton's affair, impeachment, trial, and their aftermath. They reflect the paradox of a president whose personal ethics seemed inversely related to his political skills. And they arise from the many questions raised by polls like the one taken by the Washington Post in April 1998, at the height of the impeachment controversy, that found that 65 percent of those asked said they approved of the way President Clinton was handling the presidency, yet only 35 percent thought him honest and trustworthy and only 29 percent felt he had high personal moral and ethical standards. (6)

As befits an important and puzzling set of questions, there have been no shortages of explanations. Many are plausible; some are not. Some are consistent with available evidence of the public's views; many are not. Most are certainly inconsistent with each other. Hence, the subtitle of this article.

Examining these multiple and often inconsistent explanations, and the public opinion evidence available to support or diminish our confidence in them, is important for several reasons. It allows us to proceed on a firmer substantive and theoretical footing. In the process, it is also possible to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between presidential character and performance on one hand and public judgments about these matters on the other.

This article and the one that will be published in the next issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly are, to repeat, not meant to directly test hypotheses but rather to limit and refine them. Toward that end, I make use of publicly available reporting, commentary, and polls on the public's response to the Lewinsky scandal and Mr. Clinton's subsequent impeachment.

In this article and the next, I examine fifteen often-conflicting explanations of Mr. Clinton's survival. Four others are briefly noted but need not concern us in any depth: (1) he was viewed as an errant family member; (7) (2) he was the embodiment of our sins, for which he suffered; (8) (3) he offered excess, which the public found appealing; (9) (4) his public support represented the "wisdom of the people. …