The American Voters' New Tolerance

The voters seem headed toward reelecting President Clinton. That's what the polls keep telling us - if we can believe them. Mr. Clinton's strength lies in his personal charm. Bob Dole's main problem is his age. One poll shows that the first thing that 70 percent of the electorate thinks about Mr. Dole is "old."

And now Clinton's attacks on Iraq seem to be helping him pick up even more public support.

Are there possible pitfalls ahead for Clinton? Anyone who can survive problems like Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and his ambivalence toward the Vietnam draft can probably withstand any new questions about his personal actions - short of some serious Whitewater-related charge - that may emerge during the campaign.

Take the allegations against Richard Morris, the aide who was so influential in steering Clinton toward the center and revitalizing his presidency. Mr. Morris's failure to deny his involvement in a relationship with a prostitute, including sharing with her his phone conversations with the president, is being interpreted as an admission. In any event, it caused quite a stir at the Chicago convention and cast somewhat of a pall over the president's big evening.

But there's little evidence in the polls that the voters are penalizing Clinton for being such a close associate and friend of someone apparently involved in such a sleazy and national-security-threatening affair. Sure, Clinton is not Morris. But Morris might well have reminded voters of Clinton's own extramarital adventures of the past.

If he did, it wasn't for long. The voters - or a substantial majority of them - seem to have decided that the president's peccadillos or the kind of people he turns to for advice have nothing to do with his ability to be an effective president.

It's more than that, as I see it. There's a new tolerance among Americans for politicians who step out of bounds on what might be called sexual matters. For example, some Democratic delegates said Morris's conduct was irrelevant - that it was simply "something between Morris and his wife."

Yet this new tolerance doesn't extend to sexual harassment. We saw what happened to former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood when he stepped out of line with a number of women. Feminists, in particular, are leading the charge against harassers - and rightly so.

BUT I've often wondered why feminists aren't also up in arms over politicians who are womanizers. They say they find this "using" of women dehumanizing. However, I see little evidence of any feminist - or public - outcry against Clinton's behavior in the past. Indeed, it is the particularly strong backing from women that is giving Clinton his decided edge over Dole.

Maybe we've entered a day of more forgiveness for everyone, including our public figures. At Monitor breakfasts in Chicago, two top Clinton advisers, Don Fowler and James Carville, were asked on successive mornings what the negative impact on the campaign would be if - although only a remote possibility - Hillary Clinton were indicted for Whitewater-related activity. Both said "none." They also said that voters would interpret such an event as "political" and brought about by a "biased" special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, who was "an instrument of the Republican Party."

Perhaps. But I believe the public's new tolerance goes only so far. A serious charge of actually breaking the law, particularly if a felony were alleged against either Mr. Clinton or his wife, might break down some of the walls of this willingness to forgive and forget. I think that a number of independent-minded voters, who now swell Clinton's lead, might decide to back another candidate.

But short of a Whitewater-related October "surprise," it would appear, at this point, that Clinton is moving toward four more years in the White House. I have just returned from talking to a number of people in the San Diego area during the week between conventions. Republicans and Democrats alike seemed to be looking on a Clinton victory as a virtual certainty.

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