April 14, 1998
by Michael Flannery
Conservatives are livid. If you get bored enough during a long drive, tune in to some of the right-wing radio programs, it's even possible to feel sorry for them . "Clinton gets away with everything and nobody seems to care!" both the callers and hosts cry, throwing tantrums of righteous indignation and thinly-veiled jealousy.
Griping about an issue when no one cares is frustrating, but it can be good for you. Now Republicans know how Democrats felt until halfway through Reagan's second term, before Iran- Contra became public knowledge. Americans had to learn that Reagan's foreign policy was in the hands of Curly, Moe and Larry before anyone dared say "the emperor has no clothes." (Insert your own Clinton joke here.)
Yet comparing Bill Clinton to Ronald Reagan is unfair because there is at least one important difference between the two. Clinton, although intelligent and effective, now appears to be a liar. Lately it doesn't look like he's been a very good one, either. The same can't be said of Reagan. Even those who disagreed with his policies found him likable. Unlike Clinton, Reagan was never the sharpest knife in the drawer, but his personality enabled him to tell some really great lies. You wanted to believe them because you knew that Reagan halfway believed them himself.
It did become obvious while he was in office that most of Reagan's dogs weren't attached to the same leash. This is the man who cited trees as a major source of air pollution, and who once toasted Princess Diana during a reception as "Princess David." He was the man who practically fell asleep in the Pope's lap. Incidentally, he also did his best to spend us into bankruptcy and damn near wrecked the economy.
But Reagan is a demi-god to many conservatives. It's pointless to try to contradict them. They've already made up their minds, and they're not overly-zealous about exposing themselves to the facts.
"Yes," the more honest Republicans say, "but what about the liberals who defend Clinton? Aren't they doing the same thing?"
Clinton does have a strong base of support. He also has oratory skills that most of us would love to have during those occasions when we're trying to talk our way out of a speeding ticket. He's an expert politician, but concerns are creeping in, even among die-hard Democrats. It's looking more and more likely that the President is, well, sleazy. So why isn't there a popular uproar for his resignation?
People are scared. The fear comes not from some Falwellesque conspiracy that might result in murder if anyone speaks out, but of any alternatives the Republicans have to offer to a Democratic president.
The public hasn't been howling for Clinton to step down, and it's not because he's so believable with his denials. It's as if both President Clinton and his legal advisors think they're trying to convince the O.J. Simpson jury of reasonable doubt.
The reason there is no uproar is because the idea of going back to a Republican White House is apparently repugnant to many Americans. If the Democratic party is damaged beyond repair by this scandal, the next person to sit in the Oval Office will come from the ranks of the same fun people who brought us Jesse Helms.
Conservatives are flabbergasted that Clinton has had so little trouble with his approval ratings. It's surprising that few have expressed doubt of the validity of the polls, but it could be that the polls are really not reflecting how highly people think of Clinton. It seems more likely that they are instead conveying the incredibly low opinion the public holds of the Republican party.
In spite of this, it would be crazy to defend something that turns out to be indefensible, no matter how awful the Republicans or how good the economy. It would look too similar to the Reagan apologists or to the loons who still try to justify the burglary tactics of Nixon's re-election committee. If things keep piling up, Democrats will become tired of defending Clinton when it looks so likely that he's guilty of things like sexual harassment and perjury.
Things might look more bleak for Clinton if it weren't for two facts: 1) Many Democrats would absolutely hate to give legally- and ethically-compromised jerks like Newt Gingrich the pleasure of hearing them admit that Clinton is legally and ethically compromised, and 2) The Republicans in Congress don't want Al Gore to replace Clinton because it would make Gore harder to beat in the next election.
Not wanting to admit you're wrong to people you don't like is human nature, but the fact that the Republicans are so afraid of Gore is a very strong argument in favor of him.
In the past Al Gore hasn't had the reputation of Mr. Personality, but he's getting more dynamic. Perhaps he's taken a Tony Robbins seminar. Last Martin Luther King Day he gave a speech in a church in Washington that put James Brown's performance in second The Blues Brothers movie to shame. He still has some distance to go before he's ready for the cover of Rolling Stone, but he's loosening up to the point that he can make the Democrats proud.
This is one thing that can be said about Clinton with absolute certainty: he was responsible when he chose his VP. Shortly after he made this decision, a member of his campaign team asked what the deciding factor was that made him choose Al Gore. Clinton answered something to the effect of "Because I could die, or something else could happen to me."
That's the way it's supposed to happen, of course, but it doesn't always work that way. It seems unlikely that George Bush was thinking the same thing when he chose his VP.
Situations have been changing so rapidly that it's unclear whether the allegations against President Clinton will be proved. If this happens, liberals should remember how disgusting it was to listen to conservatives brainlessly defend Nixon's crimes or Reagan's incompetence.
This may well be a chance for Democrats to demonstrate they can rise above the lemming- like behavior of routine politics.