Americans Don't Know What They Want, And Clinton Will Be Happy To Waffle Along Of Course, Everyone Knows That Clinton Is Merely Positioning. But That, Too, Doesn't Matter.

Posted: July 08, 1996

WASHINGTON — When the Gallup Poll (June 18-19) asked whether the words ``honest and trustworthy'' apply to Bill Clinton, Clinton lost 49 percent to 46 percent. (Two weeks later, in another poll, same question, Clinton was losing 54-40.) And when Gallup asked whether Clinton has the honesty and integrity to serve as president, Clinton won 62-36.

A milestone of sorts: A quarter-century after Nixon, we have achieved the normalization of Nixonian ethics. A large number of Americans think their president crooked and ethically fit for the office.

Whitewater gets worse: 49-42 percent think Clinton is not telling the truth about it, 46-44 percent think he did something illegal. Filegate grows: 50-36 percent think Clinton knew about it all along - something he has explicitly denied. All the while, Clinton rides high in the polls with a strong 56 percent approval rating.

This is no Teflon presidency. This is Velcro. Everything sticks to this man - Flowers and Jones, Whitewater and Filegate. But it does not matter. Expectations of presidential character have fallen so low with Clinton that the people can believe the worst about him and still want him where he is.

Republicans are at wits' end with frustration that, as the sordidness of this administration is progressively exposed, Clinton suffers little political damage. The American people say they want clean government, but they obviously don't mean it.

They don't mean it about character. And they don't mean it about policy either.

On policy, with few exceptions (abortion being the most notable), the country is conservative. The American people say they want smaller government, lower taxes, balanced budgets, less welfare, more jails.

Clinton, whose major presidential initiatives were gays in the military, a stimulus package of federal spending, a tax increase and the nationalization of health care, is now running for reelection as a moderate conservative.

In one of the most cynical - and successful - acts of election-year repositioning in recent American history, Clinton has moved to the right on a dozen issues. He's for school uniforms and curfews for minors. He's for the ``victims' rights'' constitutional amendment. He's for Megan's Law. He's against gay marriage.

Having slashed the staff of the White House Office of Drug Abuse by 80 percent, he's now talking tough on drugs. Having submitted a fiscal year 97 budget with $200 billion deficits, he's now for a balanced budget.

Most brazen of all, having twice vetoed welfare reform bills, he's now the champion of welfare reform. Three days before Bob Dole was to give a major speech on welfare, Clinton suddenly announced his endorsement of Wisconsin's radical (Republican) welfare plan.

Clinton's aides have since been hard at work watering it down. No matter. That's for Page 38. The endorsement was Page 1.

Of course, everyone knows that Clinton is merely positioning. But that too doesn't matter. The polls show that with these deliberate rhetorical moves to the center, Clinton has risen significantly in the polls - 13 points - on the question of whether he reflects the values of the American people.

Reflect he does. Like a mirror. The Republicans are confounded. They were elected in 1994 on a detailed conservative agenda that they then tried to enact - an error of sincerity and zeal for which they have ever since been paying in the polls.

Clinton's political genius is discerning and then becoming whatever the American people want. They want tough welfare reform, but they don't want to hurt anyone. They want to abolish racial preferences, but they want to save affirmative action. They want to balance the budget, but will crucify the politician who tampers with Medicare - which is busting the budget.

In other words, they are not serious. And neither is Clinton. On every great issue, they say yes and no. Clinton lives and breathes yes and no.

He talks right and governs (when he can) left. He talks tough and governs soft. He is, in short, the perfect president for our time. And if he cuts a few ethical corners too, so what?

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