How Fault Lines Split on Clinton

'Elite' opinion appears to be moving toward resignation, but the public budges little, with distaste enough to go around.

The list of newspapers calling on the president to resign (165 at last count) grows daily - from the Chicago Tribune to the Douglas, Ariz., Daily Dispatch. So, too, does the list of public figures, which ranges from the new Miss America, Nicole Johnson, to feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, a past Clinton admirer.

The public, meanwhile, seems less apocalyptic about Mr. Clinton. Polls show his approval ratings are actually rising. Nor do most Americans think the president should step down, though those numbers are edging up.

In short, the Clinton Paradox - that yawning gap between public opinion and so-called elite opinion - continues to be a defining characteristic of one of the most unusual periods in American politics.

True, more Americans than before are now willing to at least consider a Clinton resignation - nearly half the public now believes he should think about quitting, according to the latest Newsweek poll. Polls have also shown a steady upward creep in public support for impeachment - from 26 percent, right after Clinton's Aug. 17 speech to the nation, to the mid-30s now in CNN polling.

But compared with the tidal wave of elite opinion that has poured out against the president, the public has come across as more measured. Addressing this gap, some newspaper columnists have suggested that it just takes the public longer to come to a conclusion - that while editorial writers and politicos spend much of their time thinking about the future of the president, the public is considering this question only sporadically, along with everything else going on in their lives.

But there's another factor mitigating the president's risk: public cynicism. The average citizen is more inclined to view politicians with a broad brush - that many of them are crooks, bums, and liars - than are the opinion elite, who tend to know politicians personally and who see the range of people who populate that class. Opinion elites feel personally betrayed by Clinton.

"Public cynicism about politics and politicians is very strong," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "It has been growing for 30 years, and it's really protecting the president. Opinion leaders don't feel that same cynicism, because 'he's one of us.' ... We feel he's personally betrayed our standard, and the public says, 'What standard?' "

Measure of the tape

If anyone thought the public airing of Clinton's grand-jury testimony might somehow resolve what to do about Clinton, they will likely be disappointed.

The president didn't fly into a purple rage during the grueling questioning. But the tape also gave a firsthand look at the president's legal hair-splitting as he tried to avoid admitting sexual contact with Monica Lewinsky that he hadn't admitted before.

Clinton looked, in the view of one longtime Democratic analyst, like a teenager who had taken dad's car out all night and desperately didn't want to admit it.

The public has responded with what it's been saying all along: Those who already supported Clinton are still largely supportive, and found all those questions about sex (and not much else) to be too much. Those who want him out say the tape helped make their case - that he is evasive about the truth and lacks credibility to stay in office.

"If you came in hating Clinton, you came out still hating him," says Del Ali, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Research. "But if you're one of these Democrats looking for something [to hang onto], you may have found something. I have a feeling there are a lot of House Republicans who wish they hadn't run the tape."

The view from Texas

Don Richie of Austin, Texas, a computer executive having breakfast with his business partner at a local cafe Tuesday, felt the videotape of Clinton's grand-jury testimony was anticlimactic. He had expected to see the president's "dark side," but instead found him "extremely articulate."

Neither he nor his partner, both Republicans, was shocked by anything on news broadcasts. "All these revelations are revelations we saw before Clinton was even elected," says Mr. Richie. "So why should we care now?"

Both men believe Clinton should remain in office, citing the vibrancy of the US economy during his tenure. "I'm not saying Clinton is completely responsible for the economy, but he has done good things while he's been in office," says Dennis Gale.

Next door, however, the moral barometer registers a different reading. Charlie Clark, a pony-tailed tile layer at a construction site, says, "Clinton has done everything he can to remove the Lord from this country." But Mr. Clark, who describes himself as a "Saul-turned-Paul," says the problem rests as much with the country as with the president. "What concerns me is that the heart of America has turned cold. Everyone is too concerned about making a buck."

Still, more people are willing to at least consider a Clinton resignation. One reason, analysts say, is because they want the matter to go away. As things stand now, the nation faces the prospect of the Lewinsky scandal eclipsing important national issues.

* Staff writer Scott Baldauf contributed to this report.

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