When the past is impolitic
Admissions of past drug use haven't seemed to hurt the careers of
WASHINGTON — For baby-boom politicians with a past, it's a tough question: What should they say about youthful drug use?
The truth, say pollsters and other voter opinion experts. Admitting experimentation at a former time hasn't hurt a host of national and state candidates, even in the tough-on-drugs climate of the 1990s.
That's because voters tend to be sophisticated judges of politicians' characters. Voters decide for themselves whether particular misdeeds render someone unfit for office -- as the majority support for President Clinton during his impeachment trial made clear.
Thus George W. Bush's refusal to answer persistent inquiries about whether he used cocaine in the past may not, in the end, be as defining as breathless media coverage would indicate.
"The public makes a lot of important distinctions in all of this. Current behavior, past behavior ... context is important," says Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion and demographic expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Consider New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson's experience.
In 1994, Mr. Johnson, a Republican, volunteered to a reporter that he had experimented with cocaine when he was younger. He won, despite facing a better-known opponent.
In last year's race for Georgia lieutenant governor, Democrat Mark Taylor, admitted that he had used both cocaine and marijuana in the early 1980s. His Republican opponent, Mitch Skandalakis, ran ads that implied Mr. Taylor had not overcome his drug problem. The ads backfired, and Taylor won.
Polls now show that large majorities of Americans do not believe past drug use disqualifies a candidate from running for an office that may help enforce today's drug laws.
A Fox News-Opinion Dynamics survey this week found that 72 percent of respondents thought youthful experimentation on the part of politicians, in general, should be forgiven. In a Time-CNN poll, 84 percent of respondents said that possible youthful drug use by Mr. Bush, in particular, shouldn't prevent him from seeking the presidency.
What the voters say they are getting tired of is the media's relentless probing into politicians' private lives. At the same time, they acknowledge that if a candidate did use drugs in the past, it is something that the public should probably know about.
In a July CNN-Time survey, 60 percent of respondents said that candidates should have to answer questions about past cocaine use. Forty-three percent said candidates should have to say whether they had used marijuana. Thirty percent said they should have to own up to extramarital affairs.
"Americans really are of two minds about this," says Ms. Bowman. "At some level they think the press should investigate, and on the other hand, they really have had enough talk about politicians' private lives."
However, the public does appear to be interested in how a candidate handles him or herself once they come under media fire on a particular question. And on that score, candidate Bush may have stumbled a bit in recent days.
His partial answers to questions about cocaine, in which he has denied use in the last 25 years, have kept the issue alive and created at least the appearance that he is hiding something in his youthful past.
His fellow GOP aspirants have jumped on him, telling him to "just answer the darn question," in Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah's phrase.
Bush's parsing of words has led some to compare him with the man he wants to replace. "If this makes him seem more like Clinton, and voters are tired of that [hairsplitting], it could be important," says Charles Jones, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
One problem Bush may be trying to avoid is the tendency in US politics for the first person to admit to a personal failing to neutralize the issue, at the cost of their own ambitions.
Thus Judge Douglas Ginsburg was forced to withdraw for consideration for the US Supreme Court in 1987 after acknowledging he had smoked marijuana while a professor. Marijuana use no longer is an instant disqualifier for high office, however - both Vice President Al Gore and Mr. Clinton have admitted use of the drug, though Clinton said he did not inhale.
And voters do still judge the GOP as the party more likely to embrace mainstream family values than the Democrats. In that context, admission of drug use by a Republican presidential candidate could be more damaging than for a Democrat.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society