Gulf Separates Public, The Beltway

August 20, 1998

Perhaps the most striking feature of the reaction to President Bill Clinton’s grand jury testimony and dramatic speech to the nation Monday was the gaping gulf between the public and the Washington community.

As evidenced by the focus groups gauging reactions to the speech and postspeech polls, most people took these extraordinary events in stride, seeing them as constituting something less than a defining moment in American political history. They watched the president’s brief, somber speech and largely accepted what they saw and heard: Clinton had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky; he lied about it, to protect himself and his family; he takes full responsibility for his behavior, which was inappropriate and wrong; but this is a private, not a criminal, matter; and the partisan investigation of the independent counsel should end now.

As has been the case since the scandal surfaced, the public continues to distinguish between the job he is doing as president and the content of his private character. Americans have no illusions about his marital fidelity or truthfulness. Their regard for him has further diminished. But they strongly value his performance as president and overwhelmingly oppose resignation or impeachment, even if Kenneth Starr presents convincing evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice.

The reaction in Washington (by which I mean politicians, pundits and the press) was precisely the opposite. In their view, Clinton’s speech was short on contrition and apology, long on thinly veiled anger and defiance; it took refuge in half-truths and legalisms and shifted responsibility to his political opponents, in particular the independent counsel. His public acknowledgment of a sexual relationship with a White House intern and his lack of candor about it, moreover, underscore the gravity of Clinton’s misbehavior, the damage he has done to the presidency and the perilousness of his hold on office. Few Democrats have risen to his defense—not surprising, given his indefensible behavior – and some have spoken emotionally about their feelings of betrayal and shame. To the public’s dismay, the Washington community is surely correct in believing that we are nowhere near a resolution of this tawdry affair. The Starr investigation will continue and it will be weeks or even months before he submits a report to Congress presenting evidence that he contends constitutes possible grounds for impeachment. At that point, the controlled and directed nature of a criminal investigation (the appropriateness of which is certainly open to debate) will give way to the democratic features of an inherently political process. And this is when the gap between Washington and public opinion becomes crucial.

Politics demands that the gap close before Congress takes any definitive action in response to Starr’s report—politicians simply will not risk defying public opinion on a matter of such salience and significance. But that gap can close in either of two ways. Elite opinion in Washington, bolstered and mobilized by the findings of Starr’s investigation, could influence public sentiment, leading to a collapse of support for Clinton and a growing public acceptance that he must go, one way or the other. Alternatively, members of Congress may belatedly discover the wisdom of the public’s steadfast support of the president and bury the Starr report.

Which scenario is more likely? If the past seven months are any guide, public opinion will be the stable and dominant force. When the Monica Lewinsky affair surfaced, the Washington community forecast the president’s remaining time in office in hours, not years. The public, on the other hand, immediately saw the scandal as a private matter, and its admiration of the president’s performance actually increased. Over the intervening months, as the public came to accept the reality of a sexual relationship, its resistance to suggestions of resignation or impeachment also increased.

On the other hand, the approaching fall elections provide politicians a prime opportunity for shaping public opinion of the Clinton presidency. What long seemed likely to be a status-quo election now has the air of great uncertainty. Democrats are worried that their core supporters may be demoralized and their strong campaign issues swamped by scandal talk, but they see little advantage in adding to the president’s troubles. Republicans see new opportunities to mobilize their base but are wary of overplaying their hand. Few in Congress are eager to confront the Starr report before the election, but most realize it will be a critical part of the election backdrop. And all will read the tea leaves after the election for hints of the likely route by which Washington and public opinion are joined.