The Polls: The Public's Response to the Clinton Scandals, Part 2: Diverse Explanations, Clearer Consequences. (Features)

Article excerpt

This is the second of two articles addressing the public's response to the Clinton scandals. The question underlying both articles is this: How was it possible for a president who consistently lied to the public 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; who personally orchestrated the most massive stonewalling effort since Watergate to keep the truth of his inappropriate behavior from the public; who was believed by the public to have committed the offenses for which he was impeached; and whose behavior would not be tolerated in any CEO, professor, military commander, or anyone in a position of power and responsibility, to manage, nonetheless, to maintain high levels of public approval throughout his and our ordeal? In this article, I address the explanations of why Mr. Clinton survived that are more directly causal than contextual, and I close by noting some continuing consequences of the Clinton scandals and the public's reaction to them.

Primary Explanations

Unlike framing explanations, primary explanations attempt to focus on factors believed to have a direct causal bearing on the subject at hand. In the sections that follow, I present nine such elements and assess their value.

A Public Backlash against the Attack Culture?

Several commentators have suggested that the anger against Mr. Clinton was tempered by the public's weariness with the attack culture. Samuelson (1998, A19; see also Tannen 1998, 32) defines that culture as

 
   the corruption of normal public investigations--by congressional committee, 
   the press and independent counsels and prosecutors. They become less 
   concerned with uncovering wrong doing than in ruining the accused 
   politically. People instinctively find the processing baffling, unfair and 
   (to the nation) self-destructive. They don't wish to reward and perpetuate 
   it by making Clinton the latest and largest kill. 

Samuelson notes that although none of this excused the president, it did temper public outrage. He also notes that small transgressions become the rationale for character attacks and cites Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings and Newt Gingrich's book contract as cases in point. People know, he writes, that investigations are frequently used selectively for partisan purposes. (1)

I am not aware of any direct evidence that bears on this matter. Certainly all the polling evidence that shows the public's lack of support for Mr. Starr (Balz and Deane 1998a, 35), the investigation, and the Republicans supporting it (2) could be interpreted as consistent with this formulation. However, that evidence is consistent with other formulations as well. For example, public anger at Mr. Starr might well have been a response to White House campaigns against him, a reaction to his role in bringing the public unwanted information, his association with the kinds of excess described above, or all three.

"It's the Economy, Stupid"

Some thought they found the answer to the question of why the public was reluctant to reach a strong judgment against the president in their own self-interest. In particular, they pointed to a robust economy--low unemployment, low inflation, and a roaring stock market that combined to lift the president's approval ratings for job performance. A Washington Post/ABC News poll (Morin and Deane 1998, A6) concluded that the president "clearly benefits from good economic times." His job approval rating in that poll stood at 68 percent among those who thought the economy was doing well and only 24 percent among those who thought the economy was not doing so well. Among those Americans who said they were personally better off now (i.e., 1997) than they were four years before, 68 percent approved of the job Clinton was doing, a view shared by only 42 percent of those whose finances had suffered (Morin 1997, A01). …