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Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hillary Rodham Clinton's defense of her husband on the "Today Show" was crucial to his continued popularity. (AP)

Clinton's Poll Numbers Surprised Political Pros

By Ceci Connolly and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 9, 1998; Page A06

When Stanley Greenberg first read the allegations that President Clinton had sex with a White House intern, the Democratic pollster braced himself for the worst.

A veteran of the Clinton draft and sex scandals of the 1992 campaign, Greenberg thought his former client would take a beating in the polls. Instead, after an initial dip, Clinton's job approval ratings shot up to record heights.

"That he would gain popularity is not what many smart observers thought would happen," an incredulous Greenberg said. "We are all running to catch up to reality."

As the controversy of Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky continues to unfold, political professionals of both parties have been forced to rethink their old assumptions about where the public draws the line on sex and politicians.

Their preliminary theories are all over the map:

Only Clinton could survive these charges. The baby boomers just don't care. Forgiveness is easy when your bank account is bulging. Who are we to judge, Bill and Hillary have their own unique partnership. Voters are not as quick to reach conclusions as the Washington press corps and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Sex hurts the family values GOP, but Democrats are free to roam.

"The problem with this is we are not going to learn the real impact for years," said GOP analyst-pollster Frank Luntz. "It is going to leave an indelible mark on our psyche but I don't know what the mark will be. . . . There is no history, there is no example."

Republicans, many of whom saw moral issues as their ticket to the White House, are bitterly dismayed over the Teflon shell protecting Clinton. "There is a lot of discouragement in Republican, conservative circles about the stratospheric approval ratings," said Ralph Reed, a leading GOP operative and former executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Everyone seems to agree -- and the polls show -- that perjury and coverup charges against the president could prove very damaging, even if the sexual allegations do not. But none of the political experts claims to know how far the sexual revolution has moved the nation's moral boundaries. "Is this the last gasp of the 1960s or a validation of them?" asked William J. Bennett, one of the Republican Party's moral banner-carriers. "I don't know."

The Lewinsky case is hardly the first time Clinton's marital fidelity has been called into question. And it is the familiar ring to the latest charges that might help explain why his popularity has not been tarnished by them -- even though 53 percent of adults surveyed Jan. 28-31 by The Washington Post believe Clinton had an affair with the young intern, and only 34 percent believe he did not.

"The American public had two opportunities to vote on Bill Clinton in the midst of similar allegations -- Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones," said Jeff Eller, a Texan who helped map Clinton strategy during the tumultuous 1992 campaign. "They looked at him and made their choice."

The question for many campaign operatives is whether the dynamic signals a basic change in the rules, or that Clinton is an exception to the rules.

"If all this stuff had come out about Al Gore it might be a completely different reaction because he's such a Boy Scout," said Neil Oxman, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant. In Clinton's case, he said, "It's already been litigated." Added Democratic pollster Fred Yang: "That is how they first got introduced to Bill Clinton, on this issue of adultery and extramarital affairs."

But a number of strategists contended that Clinton's support in the polls reflects a more substantial shift in the electorate. Take Shelly Spearing, who came to cheer on Clinton when he visited the Los Alamos laboratories in New Mexico last week. She told a reporter that Clinton's alleged affair was of little consequence to her. After all, she said, corporate executives routinely have sexual liaisons with young employees.

Sixty percent of adults surveyed by The Post said they did not think it was important whether Clinton had an affair with a former intern, and 65 percent said they would want him to remain in office if in fact the affair had happened.

"When Clinton got elected, a new generation took power, the baby boom generation took power," according to Tom Hujer, a partner in the West Coast consulting firm FDR Associates. "The baby boom generation is more forgiving and understanding than the World War II generation."

Outside Washington, the political professionals said voters are more focused on their own lives than salacious rumors about the man who is presiding over one of the longest peacetime economic expansions in history. The Post poll showed the president with 67 percent job approval rating, his highest.

The elderly Polish cashier at the Chicago delicatessen where Democratic consultant David Axelrod eats lunch worries about the price of health care and her retirement and tells him: "When are they going to get off this guy's back? He's trying to help us."

Atlanta-based Reed said voters credit Clinton with a strong State of the Union speech and an even stronger economy. "They have made a hard-nosed calculation they do not want the upheaval associated with impeachment unless more irrefutable evidence emerges."

Moreover, polls show that the public so far accepts the White House claim that right-wing enemies of the president are conspiring to bring down his presidency. The public appears to accept that Starr extended his investigation of the Whitewater land deal into whether Clinton lied about his relationship with Lewinsky with the main goal of damaging Clinton politically rather than determining if crimes were committed.

Ever since the 1992 campaign, Clinton's allies have successfully promoted the notion that there is a distinction between public and private behavior. "We don't necessarily want priests for president," said Democratic media specialist Dane Strother.

None of the experts sees a groundswell of acceptance of marital infidelity, but they have observed a public that is increasingly uncomfortable rendering judgment on other people's private lives. "Most agree they don't want the president to lie or have bad morals," Oxman said, "but at the same time, they don't want to be snooping."

Greenberg speculated that Clinton's popularity is part of a larger phenomenon. He pointed out that figures as diverse as Princess Diana and former president Ronald Reagan led less than perfect private lives, but the public was still able to find redeeming personal traits. Clinton appears to score points for maintaining his first marriage and for developing a strong bond with his daughter Chelsea.

Analysts on both sides agreed that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's support has been crucial to the president's political survival. "It's hard to get mad at a president over adultery or alleged sex with an intern if his wife isn't mad at him," said Greg Mueller, a conservative Republican.

In private, political operatives described the White House marriage as strikingly "unique." One consultant said his firm conducted focus groups exploring voter views of the marriage and "we found people saw them more as a partnership" than exemplars of some romantic ideal.

While some voters are disconcerted by this perception of the couple, the view also provides an explanation for Hillary Clinton's unrelenting public support of her husband. Throughout their marriage, Hillary Clinton has always taken the lead role in defending her husband and preserving their mutual ambitions.

In addition to the protective cover Clinton receives from his wife, the president may have a built-in advantage dealing with the sex controversy because he is a Democrat. "Republicans, unlike Democrats, have very systematically adopted a standard of family values and moral uplift," said Reed. "There's always been a double standard."

Reed cited the 1983 cases of Reps. Daniel B. Crane (R-Ill.) and Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.), both of whom acknowledged seducing Capitol Hill pages. "Studds was reelected and Crane went down in flames," Reed said.

Now, as Democrat Clinton basks in his high poll ratings, Mike Bowers, once the front-runner for the Georgia GOP nomination for governor, is struggling to win forgiveness from social conservatives after confessing to a 10-year adulterous affair. "Character is not one incident in one person's life. It's the totality of their life," the former state attorney general told reporters last week as he tried to salvage his candidacy.

Bowers may find he has a hard time selling that message to GOP voters. Republican candidates, especially those who campaign on moral issues, are far more vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy for any hint of scandal in their personal lives.

"There is a significant element of the Republican base that defines itself strictly in terms of moral values," said Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster.

In Republican primaries, Christian and social conservatives often are strong enough to determine the outcome, but in a general election, their influence is diluted, explaining why Clinton continues to do so well -- despite his alleged behavior.

Many leading social conservatives, however, optimistically predict the pendulum will swing back, especially if it is proved that the president lied about an affair under oath. When asked what concerned them more -- the allegations that Clinton had an affair with the former intern or that he lied under oath about it, 82 percent of those polled by The Post responded that a lie would concern them more.

Referring to the cumulative effect all these allegations of improper behavior will have on the public, William Bennett said, "This will cut the other way. People are going to say we don't want any more of this; let's not go there again."

Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, bases his prospective presidential bid on the premise that he can mobilize conservatives who see the nation in a state of moral decline. "I don't have any doubt that 30 years of relativism and the sort of 'different strokes for different folks' culture has devalued our moral currency," he said. "There is an incredible vacuum in American politics in that the American people will quickly respond" to a leader committed to end "the culture deficit."

Some others are, however, less optimistic:

Republican pollster Bill McInturff suggested that voters now accept the notion that all politicians operate in a corrupt universe of sex, money and power. The danger, he said, is that the crucial "self-policing" function of partisan competition may be lost. "It's hard to imagine what could be a scandal ad that would have some impact. It's a horrible place we have come to."

Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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