Clinton Popularity Bombs Inside the Beltway

April 8, 1998

Remember the Missile Gap? The Gender Gap? Now there’s a new gap in politics: the Clinton Gap, measured as the distance between the country’s high approval rating of the president in the midst of the Monica-Paula-Kathleen saga and his standing in Washington, where it would be difficult to find a Clinton defender who is not related to him, employed by him or otherwise a supplicant to him.

The separation may even have been widened by Judge Susan Webber Wright’s decision dismissing the Paula Jones case. On Main Street, the Jones case has been viewed as a tale of sex. In Washington, as a tale of power.

Thus, now that the case has been dismissed, Main Streeters are more than ever telling Washingtonians to leave the president alone.

Obviously, within the city limits of Washington there are dentists, insurance agents, plumbers and others who I suspect are responding to the present headlines in about the same manner as their counterparts in the 50 states—where, according to the latest public opinion polls, two-thirds approve of the president’s performance.

The Washingtonians I’m generalizing about are political junkies, those for whom politics and government is a vocation or serious avocation. They are or have been federal legislators, congressional staff members, political appointees, party workers and campaign consultants, lawyers, lobbyists, journalists and policy wonks.

Some of these folks are professional opponents of the president. Their job is to oppose. Others are simply being cautious, withholding comment so as to avoid the possibility of being embarrassed by later revelations.

The political class is certainly not more moral than Americans beyond the Beltway. It is not new examples of Clinton’s womanizing that have created the gap. Rather, the gap existed before Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent fallout. Recent events are merely the framework on which to hang other discontents.

Some fault Clinton for what he chooses not to do, for failing to respond adequately to the unmet needs of the nation. Others fault him for actions taken. Welfare reform? Gays in the military? Or, for personal reasons, such as unkept promises or unheeded advice. Or for his management style, flabby by the standards of past administrations. Or for their knowledge—firsthand? secondhand?—of his dissembling. Or for a collection of matters, such as firing respected civil servants in the White House travel office, that are more important to Washingtonians than to folks in Ashtabula or Sheboygan.

In short, it is probably the prevailing opinion in Washington that Bill Clinton is the most mediocre president ever re-elected in the 20th Century.

This need not concern most Americans. Washingtonians, as defined here—whether Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives—are different from most Americans (although pockets of political junkies are also sighted around state capitals, city halls and certain university campuses). Most Americans are notoriously nonpolitical. Family, health, church, job, leisure are sufficiently consuming interests. It may take more than the fingers on one’s hands for a typical American to note a political issue worthy of extended comment.

Half of us don’t vote for president, and voters tend to give a president considerable wiggle room. “We elected you. Now do your job. Don’t bother us. If we don’t like the results, you’ll hear from us at the next election.”

Public policy and the people responsible for its formulation and implementation move up in importance with bad times. Hot war. Cold war. Recession. Inflation. Issues that could kill us or take food off our tables rightly concern us deeply. All else Main Street concludes can be left to those who like that sort of work.

And these are good times and Bill Clinton is a good-times president. He calibrates his proposals to pollsters’ findings—if not leadership, it is certainly brilliant followership. Moreover, he is lucky! Luck is what comes to you over which you have no control. (Jimmy Carter was unlucky. He never made a Supreme Court appointment, for instance; Clinton has made two.)

With the world at relative peace and the United States at considerable prosperity, Americans can afford to think of Clinton as an engaging rogue if they want to.

We can debate moral character as a desirable presidential quality at some more convenient day. If the president gets into trouble of a personal nature, the prevailing mood seems to be that it’s an OK time to set the presidency on auto-pilot.

Does Clinton need the Washington community in his corner? Probably not, if the economy remains strong and the charges against him remain primarily about sex, even sexual perjury. (Aren’t adulterers expected to lie?) But, if Kenneth Starr’s investigation turns up evidence of obstruction of justice, the president has a powerful undertow working against him in the capital.