Public Not in a Forgiving Mood

Remember back in January 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky story first broke? Very few elected Democrats came forward to defend President Clinton. They felt betrayed by his behavior. Not until polls came out showing that the public was strongly behind the President did Democratic officials find the courage to defend him.

Now, once again, Democratic leaders feel exasperated and betrayed by Clinton's behavior. But this time, the poll numbers are not there for the former President. By a more than 3-1 ratio in the Gallup poll, Americans disapprove of Clinton's pardon of financier Marc Rich. By nearly the same ratio, the public sees a quid pro quo. People think Clinton granted the pardon in return for financial contributions. Favorable opinion of Clinton has dropped sharply, from 57 percent after the election to 42 percent now—which is a return to Clinton's lowest rating ever. At the same time, favorable opinion of President Bush has been going up, from 56 percent in December to 67 percent now.

Are the shifts related? Last week's Pew Center poll reports that what people like best about Bush are what they perceive as his personal qualities—honesty and character. Other polls have shown that what people like least about Clinton is his perceived dishonesty and lack of character. Could be a connection there.

Are there any Democrats out there defending Clinton? Yes. But the funny thing is that they all used to work for him. You won't find many elected Democrats standing up for Clinton on this one. They don't have to anymore. "To my mind, there can be no justification for pardoning a fugitive from justice," Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York said during last month's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. Schumer had been one of Clinton's most ardent defenders during the impeachment controversy.

Et tu, Sen. Joe Lieberman? "I've said before and I'll say again, I thought the Marc Rich pardon was a mistake," Al Gore's former running mate said on television.

How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless party! But really, how much do Democrats have to thank Bill Clinton for? Oh sure, he was elected President twice. But the truth is, the Democratic Party did not thrive under Clinton.

Compare the state of the party before Clinton, in 1992, and after Clinton, in 2001. Before Clinton's election, Democrats had a 100-seat majority in the House of Representatives. In 1994, Republicans gained control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Although the Republican margin has diminished since 1994, the GOP remains the majority party in the House. In the Senate, Democrats have gone from a decisive 12-seat edge to a 50-50 split.

It's the same story in the states. In 1992, Democrats held a strong lead in governorships. After 1994, the number of Democratic governors dropped below 20 for the first time since 1970. And it remains below 20. Eight of the 10 largest states—all but California and Georgia—now have Republican governors.

Before Clinton, Democrats were the dominant power in the state legislatures. After Clinton, the parties are nearly tied—18 Republican legislatures, 16 Democratic, with the rest split.

Do Democrats have anything to be grateful to Clinton for—besides fund raising, of course? Well, yes. President Clinton gave the party an image of fiscal responsibility. That has made Democrats competitive in the suburbs, where most voters now live.

But this gain has come at a cost. Clinton's personal behavior has alienated culturally conservative voters and turned them over to the GOP. The challenge to Democrats is to distance themselves from Clinton personally while embracing his economic record. That's no easier now than it was for the past eight years.

It's virtually impossible for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her polls are going down along with her husband's. The Quinnipiac Poll shows Sen. Clinton's favorability ratings in decline among New Yorkers, from 46 percent positive in December to 38 percent positive in mid-February—even before the revelations about her brother's role in the pardons.

The danger is that the name "Clinton" is coming to evoke sleaze rather than the former President's record in office. As President, Clinton could change the subject to his agenda whenever scandals came up. Remember his masterful State of the Union speech in January 1998? But he can't do that anymore. At her news conference last week, Sen. Clinton bravely tried to focus attention on her agenda. But all the press wanted to talk about was her brother, her campaign treasurer, and their role in obtaining pardons.

The continuing focus on Bill Clinton's latest controversy makes things difficult for President Bush as well. Bush has to do what Ronald Reagan did so well—translate his personal popularity into public support for his agenda. Bush particularly must do that on his proposed tax cut, which has emerged as the defining test of his effectiveness. But that task won't be easy if the news media remain preoccupied with pardons and spies and submarine disasters.

Democrats may well conclude that they must distance themselves from the Clintons, turn the page, and redefine their party. Bill Bradley and Ralph Nader both want to take the party back to the left. That could be a catastrophic mistake. But it could happen, if Bill Clinton falls into disgrace.