Newsreal: Size isn't everything

With poll numbers like President Clinton's, you'd think he could do something bold and important. Then why doesn't he?


David Corn
March 4, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

WASHINGTON -- It is the dream of all presidents to be soaring in the public opinion polls. With majority approval ratings, a president should be able to do almost anything: promote favored legislation, cajole (or bully) Congress, withstand the slings of the media and generally set the national agenda. Numbers mean power.

With a record 73 percent approval rating, according to the latest CBS/New York Times poll, President Clinton should be a towering figure, exercising his will like a riding crop in the nation's capital. But that is not happening. For Clinton, at this moment in his presidency, size does not matter.

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It is a typically Clintonian paradox that the president should attain such popularity and then be utterly unable to put it to effective use. He's had a very tough time selling his war with Iraq to the American public, as the jeers emanating from the town hall meeting in Ohio and the rising chorus of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill demonstrate. He did nothing to influence the debate that just ended in the Senate on campaign finance reform legislation, even though he professed to be a supporter of the bill the GOP killed. In fact, he wasn't even in town last week when the bill was being debated; he was in California, raising scads of cash for the Democratic Party.

The president may be gaining the upper hand in his "war" with Kenneth Starr, but that is not the same thing as controlling, or even significantly shaping the policy agenda. In December and January, when Clinton was unleashing a new mini-policy proposal every 45 minutes, he was defining the political terms of 1998, much to the chagrin of Republicans. One intern later -- and poof! It's all gone. His race initiative, his proposals for education, his call to reform Social Security -- none are on the front page. The news instead is of grand jury subpoenas, Kenneth Starr excesses and White House claims of executive privilege. With his record approval ratings, Clinton has an armored tank but no gas.

When Ronald Reagan's ratings were booming, he used them to cow a Democratic Congress into supporting his pet projects, such as a supply-side tax cut, Star Wars funding and support for the Nicaraguan contras. Why aren't Clinton's numbers giving him a similar boost? Because everyone knows they are softer than custard. While the pollsters have been as shocked as the pundits at the country's laid-back reaction to the president's alleged peccadilloes, they still insist -- and they are probably right -- that Clinton could fall fast if the Lewinsky case takes a bad turn.

Remember the 1979 hostage crisis? At first, it was seen as a political godsend to Jimmy Carter, then heading into a reelection campaign at a time of high unemployment and high inflation. His numbers shot up after Iranian militants overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran. One year later, and he was out in a landslide. A year of Watergate coverage took little toll on Nixon's standing with the American public. And when his numbers did begin to drop, they appeared to be linked more to rising prices at the gas pumps and long lines at service stations. Should America's booming economy run out of steam, or the Asian economic crisis start to hit closer to home, President Clinton's numbers could start to head south, and fast.

In his second term, when he should have nothing to lose by taking chances, Clinton has become even more of a slave to poll numbers. What he does not have is the kind of political capital to buttress bold policy moves. Look at how his aides view the world these days: Last Friday, one of them told me, "We've had a good week, but not great." Why "good"? Because Starr was widely whipped for hauling White House meta-thinker Sidney Blumenthal before the grand jury. Why "not great"? Because the White House had to fudge its original claim that no one connected to the president had hired private investigators. Note what didn't figure in the aide's evaluation: Iraq, campaign-finance reform, Indonesia's backpedaling on its U.S.-backed IMF commitments, the administration's reaction to the devastation wrought by El Niqo on Florida and California.

For the time being, Starr and his supposed right-wing conspirators have succeeded. They have neutered Clinton. The president's strong numbers are not helping him do anything but survive. They are a crutch holding him up, not a ladder helping him gain the high ground. Leave it to Clinton to score big numbers that help no one but himself.

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David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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