Several weeks after the Starr report revealed to the nation the sort of man it has twice elected president, public opinion remains a study in equivocation. Whatever your point of view, you can probably find it reinforced by some significant segment of the people. Give or take change, about 30 percent of the public would pack Mr. Clinton’s bags tomorrow, another 30 percent indicates it will be with him until the last dog dies, and the remainder wallows in confusion, hesitation, and anger, hoping the whole sorry business will go away. All this, of course, makes life mighty uncomfortable for politicians. What solace can they draw from data giving the president a 60-plus percent job approval rating while simultaneously showing 40 to 50 percent who believe that he lacks the moral character to lead the nation? These and other polling responses show many things, but a settled conviction concerning what to do about Mr. Clinton isn’t one of them.
Polling data will continue to go every which way but loose between now and November 3, when the first unambiguous poll of American sentiment will occur. If the Republicans do well in the elections, Mr. Clinton’s fate will almost certainly be sealed; if they do not, the Democrats will claim a mandate to keep him in office. Thus, the battle is on for the hearts and minds of the ambivalent 40 percent. Despite the president’s temporary standing in job-approval ratings, the Clintonistas are acutely aware of his political vulnerability. They realize that their man is in roughly the same position as Richard Nixon in November, 1973, when only 30 percent of the public favored impeachment. Nine months later, a clear majority of the public wanted Nixon out and didn’t much care how it was done.
Knowing this, the president’s men are desperately scurrying about trying to cut a deal, any deal, to squelch a congressional impeachment inquiry before it begins. In lieu of a formal impeachment inquiry, they broadly hint, the president may be willing to acknowledge his wrongdoing (well, sort of) and to accept a congressional censure—provided, of course, that some sort of accommodation can be reached with Judge Starr to halt further investigation and prosecution on his part. This proposal is unlikely to garner much Republican support until after the elections, but in the meantime Mr. Clinton’s junkyard dogs will be working overtime to soften up the opposition’s resistance.
Here they will pursue a three-pronged strategy. The first prong, in turn, has two parts: Confuse the facts (which means lying about the president’s lies about his lies), and when that doesn’t work, change the subject. The principal salient of the latter undertaking is to convince us that the real problem before the nation is, you guessed it, Ken Starr. We have already been treated to excoriating observations on everything from Mr. Starr’s religious beliefs to his supposed preoccupation with the president’s infantile sexual preoccupations. In the weeks ahead, it will no doubt be revealed that Starr once read a biography of Torquemada and that an unnamed observer once saw him ogling a Playboy cover in a grocery checkout line. Whatever the details, you count on their being (a) vicious and (b) false. You can also count on the likes of Geraldo Rivera to spread such stories to the far corners of the earth.
The second prong of the junkyard dog attack will be to trash the good name of congressional Republicans and anyone else who might be in a position to thwart Mr. Clinton’s grasp on his office. The reputation of Representative Henry Hyde has already been savaged, and it’s a safe bet that other Republican targets will follow. To be sure, the White House gang stoutly denies any knowledge of or participation in this scorched-earth project, but if you believe that, you’re probably also comfortable with the president’s unique conjugation of the verb “to be.” Stand by for a couple of the nastiest months in American political history.
The third prong of the Clinton attack plan will be to play upon the residual moral ambivalence of the ’60s generation, whose spines turn to Jell-O whenever the subject of sex is raised. There is no other way to explain why an overwhelming majority of the public hasn’t already tarred and feathered Mr. Clinton. The op-ed pages and television talk shows will be filled in the weeks ahead with all sorts of blather about the one mortal sin contemporary culture can agree upon: making moral judgments. Clinton and his crowd not only share that conviction, they personify it. Whether they will succeed ‘in their effort to convert the rest of us to their ways remains to be seen, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that a battle for the soul of America is about to begin.