What Comes Next For Clinton?

I don't know how many of today's political columnists were plying their trade in the early 1970s when President Nixon was going through his travail over Watergate. Not many, I'm sure. But I can remember those days clearly and the large number of hostile letters my columns were drawing from supporters of Nixon. My observations about President Clinton and what is sometimes called "Lewinsky-gate" have, similarly, stirred up a lot of unhappiness among the president's defenders.

Oh, yes, I also vividly recall when the onslaught from angry Nixonites suddenly ended. When the tapes gave us Nixon's own voice showing his involvement in the illegal Watergate operation, his defenders just disappeared overnight. People who had been avoiding me began to speak once again. An older lady in New Orleans I was meeting for the first time startled me by saying, "I hated those columns of yours." And then, embracing me, she added: "But I was wrong."

And the polls measuring Nixon's performance in office plunged after the tapes disclosures. Before that, Nixon had been holding up fairly well in public opinion - not as high as the current polls for Mr. Clinton, but still high enough to give Nixon a strong hold on his office.

The public-opinion polls held up for Nixon until it was revealed that he had - despite his denials - known about the coverup of the Watergate break-in: He had orchestrated this coverup which, of itself, was a clear obstruction of justice.

Then it was that the public support for Nixon dropped out of sight, showing that no more than 1 out of 3 Americans remained die-hard backers of the president. A colleague of mine joked at the time that "even Caligula was able to draw 33 percent in the Roman polls."

What I am a long time getting at is this: Clinton's polls might at some point plummet, and if they do, then he, too, would become vulnerable to impeachment if, indeed, Congress is of a mind to move in that direction.

What could bring about a sudden falloff in a public approval rating for Clinton that is of record proportions despite his misadventures in Lewinsky-gate? He has admitted to lying. The pundits are all over him, some even calling for him to resign. But the economy remains strong. And most Americans, happy with their lives, continue to overlook his adultery and his lying, and applaud his performance in office.

Well, maybe there is nothing that will set off a steep decline in Clinton support. Indeed, Clinton's recent authorization of an attack on terrorists has bolstered that public backing.

But Clinton has a vulnerability that Nixon didn't have: While Nixon's supporters were still vouching for his character and approving his performance in office (until the tapes and what was in them came to light), Clinton has a very thin underpinning of public belief in his own character. Indeed, a new Washington Post-ABC survey found that only 28 percent of those polled said he is honest and trustworthy, while only 19 percent said he has high moral and ethical standards.

There could be a development in the probe of Clinton that could cause his public support to take a big dive. It would have to be something that would anger the public, something that would make people lose faith in his ability to lead. Perhaps independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report to Congress will contain this devastating blow to the president.

Do I see this coming? No.

But all I'm suggesting is that when people who say they back you are disgusted, embarrassed, and even sad about the way you conduct your personal life - well, I'd say that kind of support is very soft.

And if Clinton's overall public backing fades, that will encourage the impeachment process to start and move ahead in Congress.

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