The latest twists on the Whitewater story will swamp news of the jobs summit going on in Detroit. That's inevitable, but also a shame. The Detroit meeting of the top economic officials of the wealthy democracies will not produce any quick fixes. But the issues at stake in the summit are the most important facing the democratic countries. They help explain why so many of the democracies are mired in voter disillusionment and why political leaders -- President Clinton included -- can't get much respect these days.

The central issue is whether the social bargain that the wealthy countries worked out after World War II is doomed to come unraveled. That bargain involved rising living standards for average workers, substantial social benefits and a large private sector that controlled most investment decisions. In what became a virtuous cycle, economic growth was fueled by the spending of increasingly affluent blue- and white-collar workers. Those in charge of the Western economies gleefully proclaimed that Marx had been all wrong and that his ideas would be buried not by the bosses but by a satisfied working class.

It largely worked out that way, but the burial of communism was followed not by celebration but by anxiety. In practically all the Western democracies, voters are in revolt. The Germans, as is their habit, have invented a wonderful long word for this weariness with politics, Politikverdrossenheit.

Politicians produce enough real corruption that voter anger is often explained away as a reaction to the immediate failings of particular individuals. But as Clinton's pollster Stan Greenberg has argued -- long before Whitewater, it should be noted -- scandals are not just the cause of disillusionment; they are often the result of disillusionment. If things are going well, voters will often cut their leaders considerable slack and scandals dissipate quickly. When things go badly, voters take no prisoners. In most of the democracies, voters are in a one-strike-and-you're-out mood.

The primary cause is the deterioration of living standards for significant segments of the population, particularly the young just entering the labor force and less-skilled and less-educated workers generally. But this problem has different effects in the United States and in Western Europe.

Here, we've produced piles of jobs -- something over 35 million since 1973 -- including lots of good ones. But we've experienced a decline in wages, especially for people at the bottom of the skills ladder. In Europe, the jobs that have been produced tend to carry higher wages and benefits, but there aren't many of them -- only about 8 million new ones have been created in the same period. Western Europe has rising wages, but almost double our rate of unemployment.

The success of the American "jobs machine" has produced a new conventional wisdom: that Western Europe's problem is excessive "rigidity," too much vacation time, too many social benefits and taxes. If this is true, there's a simple answer: Cut the cost of labor, and dismantle many of the social benefits that European Social Democrats and Christian Democrats alike have supported over the years.

As is the case with many conventional wisdoms, there are grains of truth in this one. Laura D'Andrea Tyson, chairman of Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, argues that regulations in Europe can make it much harder to start a new business and harder to lay off workers when there are good economic reasons to do so. Highly generous unemployment benefits can make people reluctant to take new jobs. Employers who know it will be hard to trim their payrolls when they need to are reluctant to take on new workers, which places a particular burden on young people just entering the labor force.

But Tyson also asks the right question: How far does a society want to push this argument? Societies where the going wage is $1 an hour and where workers can be hired and fired at will certainly have "flexible labor markets." But that is no solution to the unemployment problem in the United States, France or Germany. The issue for Western societies is not only more jobs, as Clinton said yesterday, but more well-paying jobs.

Think of it this way: A family will have the same income if one person earns $10 an hour for a 40-hour week, or if two people earn $5 an hour for each of their 40-hour weeks. The second scenario involves the creation of two jobs, the first only one. But would anyone argue that the second family is better off for having to work an extra 40 hours for the same money? Consider, too, that the $10-an-hour job probably includes health coverage and the $5-an-hour job doesn't.

Telling Europe that all it needs to do is to slash benefits for its workers is thus not a sufficient answer for unemployment. As David Wessel and Daniel Benjamin wrote in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, "by many measures, an unemployed worker in Western Europe is better off than an employed American who has few skills or little education." Western Europe can learn from American "flexibility," but its workers are unlikely to sit still for the complete "Americanization" of their labor markets.

Western democracies need to grapple with three big questions: Can they coordinate their economic policies to produce more overall growth? Are fears of inflation getting in the way of reasonable steps to get the world economy moving? How can the well-off democracies improve the living standards of their least-skilled workers when hundreds of millions in the Third World are eager to work for a third or even a tenth of what workers in the rich countries are paid?

These are among the questions the Detroit summiteers are dealing with, and getting the answers right should be the central issue of Western politics. They happen to be the questions that most animate Clinton, which is why it's unfortunate that the administration helped create the conditions in which Whitewater could nearly wash the jobs summit away.