As the impeachment process hurtles toward its conclusion in the House, American voters are wearily confronting the fact that Christmas 1998 could be a season shadowed by the most serious US political confrontation in a generation.
That's not what they wanted. Over the nearly year-long arc of the investigation into President Clinton's relationship with ex-White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the will of the people - as measured by polls - has been extraordinarily stable. Large majorities of Americans believe that Mr. Clinton did everything he is charged with doing. Yet 6 in 10 want him to remain in office. Similar numbers oppose impeachment.
What has changed somewhat is the public's patience with everyone involved. Relentless coverage of the president's misdeeds has both undermined perceptions of him as a person and increased the desire for the whole thing to end as quickly as possible. Retired carpet installer Norm Secor is thus typical in his opinions: "I admit it: Clinton did something really wrong," he says, sitting in a McDonald's in Erie, Pa. "But with all this media stuff, he's probably paid as much of a price as anyone's ever paid. We should just let him get through his term."
Ever since the House Judiciary Committee opened its hearings into the Lewinsky matter, Republicans have been somewhat defensive about the expressed will of the people. Many have stressed another aspect of democracy - that they have been elected to exercise their best judgment. In that context, they say, it would be irresponsible to change their own views about the seriousness of perjury due to an overnight CNN poll.
Privately, some Washington Republicans have expressed dismay about the public's opinions. "The public is extraordinarily disconnected from this process," says one conservative think-tank official.
Indeed, the entire nation isn't exactly glued to their TVs. About 56 percent of respondents to a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll said that they were following the House Judiciary Committee hearings at least "somewhat closely." That means 44 percent are not.
Part of the reason for the lack of interest may be that they consider the revelations of the hearings a foregone conclusion. Many Americans already believe the president committed all those acts of wrongdoing. Over 80 percent of respondents to a recent ABC poll said they believed Clinton had lied under oath about his affair with Ms. Lewinsky.
Many voters simply do not feel that such an offense against the system warrants the punishment of impeachment and removal from office. Sixty percent of those who took part in the ABC poll felt that way anyway.
Yet it isn't exactly correct to say the public has remained unmoved by the months of revelations. Interviews taken across a swath of the nation's heartland agree with polls that show there is a strong feeling, even among staunch Democrats, that the president's actions were terribly wrong. Few are willing to defend him. Even the once-popular defense that "he's doing a good job running the country" doesn't surface very often.
In fact, many now seem to view Clinton and the impeachment process with a mixture of pragmatism and pity: They want the ordeal to be over, and they think Clinton has already been sufficiently punished by the public flogging he's received in the past year. "I'm tired of it being dragged out," says Jack Gause, a retired teamster - and a lifelong Republican - munching breakfast in Toledo, Ohio. "I mean, he's already been embarrassed to tears."
Indeed, "the president has been forced to surrender so much on the substance - to admit to almost everything - that even his supporters are disheartened," observes Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster. "There's been a definite shift to the right. And now his defenders are so much more defensive, saying that it's time to move on."
In fact, many people want the whole impeachment process to be over - and voice a frustration that it is elbowing aside other crucial issues. Eileen, a health-care worker in South Bend, Ind., exhorts, "Let's get on with what's really important. The elderly need tending to. There are poor people who have no furniture and have to sleep on the floor. And we're worried about Clinton's mistakes?"
To be sure, there are some who think the moral issues at stake are vital. Yet, as the process drags along, even some moderate Republicans are asking, as management consultant Robert Thomas puts it: "What's best for the country?" Downing cole slaw in Niles Township, Mich., he's not entirely sure what the answer is. "Perhaps Clinton has been punished enough," Mr. Thomas says. "Yet the symbolism of not sanctioning him for perjury could undermine the legal system for years."