HOW DO WE EXPLAIN THIS TO OUR CHILDREN?
Bill Clinton has had more political comebacks than any other major 20th century President except perhaps Richard M. Nixon. His entire career has been a cycle of success followed by failure (usually self-inflicted) followed, to the amazement of friends and foes alike, by success again. The current scandal fits into this pattern. Just when the President appeared to be ridding himself of lame-duck lassitude with strong new policy initiatives, he is hit by allegations of extramarital sex in the White House, lying under oath, and suborning perjury. Either Bill Clinton is innocent or he's guilty. We don't yet know the truth or whether his career will follow Nixon's to the very end.
If Clinton is guilty, the tragedy will be that a reckless lack of self-discipline in personal matters overwhelmed skill on policy and politics. Years before his first election in 1992, Clinton closely studied the office of the Presidency. He knew why Presidents succeeded and failed. If he did what the Monica Lewinsky tapes suggest, it will mean that he did not have enough self-control to avoid trouble.
Should Clinton be innocent, however, this painful invasion of privacy should drive a stake through the heart of prosecutorial excess. The Independent Counsel's office is basically outside the checks and balances of the Constitution. The congressional legislation that set it up during Watergate was faulty from the start. Justice Antonin Scalia was correct in 1989 when he warned against an office that has unlimited authority, money, time, and direction. The Constitution doesn't give unlimited powers to anyone in government. The independent counsel statute, scheduled to run out in 1999, should be allowed to die. Indeed, should the President prove not guilty, Starr should immediately be compelled to provide a full accounting of an investigation that has lasted four years, cost $40 million in taxpayer dollars, and has had little to show for it.
What is most surprising is the public reaction. The polls show that the majority of people believe that the President's sex life is his own private affair. One Washington Post/ABC News poll taken between Jan. 23-25 asked 1,537 adults if they believed Clinton had had an affair with his intern; 57% said "Yes." When asked whether he should resign his office as a consequence, 59% said they wanted him to remain President. Another poll on Jan. 22 by Yankelovich Partners Inc. showed that 60% of those asked believe the private lives of Presidents, including their extramarital affairs, should remain their own business. Most people also believe that such personal behavior has little or no effect on doing the job of President. Just before his State of the Union address, one Gallup poll showed that 66% of the public had confidence in Clinton carrying out his duties. After the address, this jumped to a 78% approval rating.
The polls show that the public takes lying under oath or suborning perjury much more seriously. But even then, there is great and perhaps growing ambivalence. The Washington Post/ABC poll showed that 63% of those asked said Clinton should resign if he lied under oath and 55% said he should be impeached if he refuses. Yet a New York Times/CBS poll taken later on Jan. 24-25 showed that only 30% of those asked thought Clinton should resign if he encouraged Monica Lewinsky to lie and only 18% said he should be impeached. More recent polls suggest that even if he personally lied or encouraged others to lie, less than a solid majority now believe he should leave office.
The public appears to be saying it likes Clinton's public policies and the way he handles the job more than it dislikes the way he handles his private life. People see him as producing, with a Republican Congress, the centrist economic and social policies the vast majority desire. If there are moral equations to be made, the public seems to be saying that the greater good of jobs, prosperity, improved health, education, the environment, welfare reform, and a balanced budget outweighs the sordid private morality of a sitting President.
Call us prudish or naive, but we find these poll results disturbing. Doesn't anyone think the President of the United States ought to pass the test of moral leadership?
One way or another, Clintonism is likely to outlast Clinton in the Democratic Party. He has embraced the idea of smaller, more efficient government that works within the global economy. His economic team of Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve and Robert E. Rubin at Treasury is likely to continue should Vice-President Gore have to step into the Oval Office. They have guided the country's entry into the high-tech, global economy where many of the old rules of the game relating to growth, inflation, and jobs have changed--for the better. Gore, notwithstanding his strident warnings on global warming, is even more New Democratic than Clinton.
Whatever else happens in the weeks ahead, economic policy is not likely to change much. Globalization is putting severe restraints on what can and cannot be done by Washington politicians. Competition, deflationary pressures, and capital flows strongly influence monetary policy. True, there could be changes in the policy mix for next year. President Clinton is seeking to spend about $100 billion for education, child care, and other programs. He also proposed in his State of the Union message to set aside much of the new budget surplus to shore up Social Security. Republicans, in turn, are looking for about $100 billion in tax cuts. Weakened as President Clinton is because of the scandal, odds now are the eventual compromise will tilt toward the GOP.
Like most citizens, we hope the President isn't guilty of the sordid accusations. At this point, there seems to be no choice but to let the ugly process play out--as fast as possible. Meantime, how do we explain this to our children?