A November Vote for Outrage

Clinton behavior ought to cause a twinge of conscience

The November election will tell us a lot about ourselves - whether we shrug our shoulders over lying and infidelity by our president or whether there is a large amount of latent outrage among the voters over Bill Clinton's conduct.

The polls don't help us much. In them the president's popularity remains high enough to indicate there will be little or no message of displeasure with Mr. Clinton's behavior in the upcoming election results.

Yet those same pollsters tell us that while most Americans seem satisfied with the Clinton presidency, these same people dislike the way the president has comported himself.

It would seem, then, that most Americans like the way Clinton is running the country, but don't care for his morals.

It will be very interesting then to see how that rather ambiguous public judgment plays out in an election where the votes won't be for or against Clinton, but where the voters' choices, particularly in the congressional races, may well register how they have sorted out these conflicting feelings.

I'd love to be out around the country, as in years past, asking the voters how they are going to resolve this problem. Absent this reference point, I must lean on what can only be called a veteran political observer's hunch. I think that in some ways this voter outrage with a president who is obviously guilty of unacceptable behavior will somehow surface.

Oh, I know how the White House is blurring the issue by making Kenneth Starr out to be a bad guy and arguing that what they call the independent counsel's overzealous pursuit of Clinton is at least as bad as anything the president has been caught doing.

I'm counting on the voters seeing through that ruse. They must see that Mr. Starr may have made some mistakes but that he never exceeded his independent counsel mandate - otherwise Janet Reno would have tried to remove him.

I grant that there's a lot of hope mixed into my prediction. But I've never lost faith in the basic good judgment of the American people.

The other night I caught that famous expert on morality, Bill Bennett, being interviewed about his new book - for several weeks now high on The New York Times bestseller list - "The Death of Outrage." He was trying to explain why the public seemed to be reacting to the president's sex peccadillos and lies with hardly more than a yawn - according to the polls. Mr. Bennett said this response probably stemmed from the way movies and television had, in recent years, "softened" attitudes on all kinds of personal immorality.

To me, Bennett appeared to be somewhat depressed by his own findings. Of course, he remained thoroughly outraged, but he isn't providing any reassuring road-back scenario. I'd like to see his next book tied to the outcome of an election (perhaps next week's?) which would be entitled, "Outrage Comes Back to Life."

The polls do show that there is a voter "intensity" factor that could help the election prospects of Republican candidates. In plain language this means that people who are upset with Clinton's behavior are more likely to vote than those who are not. True, this outrage is to be found mainly among white voters and those in the middle- and higher-income groups. But they are people who vote - and how they are going to get out and vote in the November election!

The polls are calling for a rather uneventful election - with the status quo being pretty much maintained in Congress, where much of the national focus will be centered.

But in the years I covered politics, I saw so many elections that were called wrong in advance.

We shall see.

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