Monday, June 09, 2003

Scandal fatigue?

Michael Langer asks an interesting question: why has the level of public outrage about government scandal become so muted? As part of his discussion he draws a comparison between how the American public reacted to the Clinton scandals and how they might react to the growing scandal over justification for the Iraq war:
It is interesting to consider this in the context of reading The Clinton Wars, since Republican efforts to tarnish the President in the 90s were, despite their success in the impeachment process, relatively stymied. Correctly or not, Republicans pursued Clinton with a fervor, vitriol, and conviction similar to that which is shared by a small portion of the left in its approach to our current president. Yet in both cases, those who have pursued popular presidents for actions fervently believed to be immoral or illegal - or a combination of the two - have had little success translating this to unfavorableness in the polls. It is beginning to seem as if this phenomenon is becoming more the rule than the exception in American politics. It is as if Watergate represented the high water mark in the fight for demanding moral virtue in Washington. Since that time there has been no shortage of outrageous political scandal among elected officials, yet there has been little public outcry. Like the wrongs of Watergate were swept away by Ford's pardons and the crimes of Iran-Contra similarly swept under the rug by the outgoing George H.W. Bush, Americans' demand for integrity in their public officials has mysteriously vanished. Lyndon Johnson earned himself a "credibility gap" by justifying war with fictitious measures; nowadays similar behavior earns you twenty points in the approval ratings.
Michael's analysis of this question is fascinating, but I think it has one fundamental flaw: it presumes that the American people will equate Clinton's perfidity about his personal behavior with Bush's exaggeration about reasons for going to war. It requires us to believe that most Americans are simply to stupid to see the fundamental difference between the two levels of malfeasance. Indeed, Clinton's "popularity" was as much a function of people's negative reaction to those who would try to turn a question of morality into a litmus test for fitness to serve as it was about how fit Clinton really was to serve. Recall that Clinton's approval ratings went UP more than 15 points after the Lewinsky scandal broke. But Bush's popularity is tied very closely to the nature of the current brewing scandal: his ability to defend this country against national security threats. People trusted Clinton to run the countries economy and there was little connection between that and his dalliances with Lewinsky. People trust Bush to defend the country and there are multiple connections between that and Bush's handling of the Iraqi situation. To put it simply: the people's negative reaction to the Clinton scandals had to do with their irrelevancy, not whether people were simply willing to cut a popular President an inordinate amount of slack. Some look at Bush's high poll numbers and pronounce the American people stupid. I prefer to consider them duped. And when people come to realize that they have been duped they can turn against those who duped them even more harshly then those of us who were never fooled in the first place.

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