With the White House shrouded in scandal, the biggest obstacle to George W. Bush’s political comeback is that he’s no Bill Clinton.
The heaviest millstone around the president’s political neck isn’t the case against Scooter Libby or the continuing investigation into Karl Rove. Rather, it’s the growing public perception that, unlike President Clinton in the 1990s, Bush is presiding over an unsuccessful, even incompetent, administration.
Scandal’s ability to upset the political apple cart is such that some observers argue scandals are now the primary means through which Americans engage in political conflict. What will be the current scandal’s impact on the Bush presidency?
An especially bad omen is the effects of a serious political scandal -- which public opinion considers this one to be -- dissipate very slowly. When governments or government officials are perceived to have violated the public trust, their transgressions aren’t quickly forgotten.
In fact, some scandals resonate throughout our political culture for several years. For example, pollsters found that the Watergate scandal’s effect upon public opinion was still felt a decade after Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency.
History also teaches us that a scandal’s presence applies considerable downward pressure on a president’s approval ratings. The mere perception of inappropriate behavior, not necessarily actual wrongdoing, is frequently a catalyst for declining approval ratings.
It’s rare for the public to separate a president’s professional performance from his personal integrity. A president’s personal integrity influences how he is evaluated and a scandal brings his integrity into question. The average scandal depresses a president’s approval ratings by nine to ten percentage points, and with only a 39 percent approval rating according to a new WashingtonPost/ABC News survey, President Bush clearly can’t afford to take an average hit.
The most notable exception to the scandal effect is Bill Clinton. His presidency remained popular despite the eruption of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in February 1998. Gallup poll surveys show support for his performance relatively high, although the public was far more critical in its evaluation of his personal qualities. By the 2000 election, Clinton’s approval rating stood at 57 percent while his personal approval was only 40 percent.
A comparison of the public’s contrasting reactions to the Watergate and Lewinsky scandals provides further bad news for President Bush. Why did so many more Americans support President Nixon’s impeachment in 1974 than President Clinton’s impeachment in 1998?
The extent to which an administration suffers politically from a scandal is determined largely by prevailing economic conditions. A strong economy permitted a majority of Americans the luxury of discriminating between Clinton’s job performance and his personal integrity.
In 1998, Clinton benefited from the public’s perception that the economy was in good shape, in sharp contrast to the public’s perception of the economy in 1974. Most Americans wanted Richard Nixon out of office for economic reasons, but most Americans wanted Bill Clinton to remain in office for economic reasons.
Overcoming the political damage inflicted by a serious scandal requires that the American people perceive both strong presidential leadership and managerial competence in the Oval Office. The good news, therefore, for President Bush may be found in the recent lesson that peace and prosperity successfully blunted the Lewinsky scandal’s impact upon the Clinton presidency.
Desperate to regain the political offensive, the White House might find that an appropriate Supreme Court nomination and a serious attack on a bloated federal government both prove to be powerful weapons in Bush’s political arsenal.
Back in 2000, George W. Bush’s presidential campaign drew an explicit contrast between its candidate’s high ethical standards and Bill Clinton’s scandalous personal behavior. Five years later, there is tremendous irony in the fact that President Bush, if his second term agenda is to survive this scandal, needs to give America a reason to rate his own presidency along Clintonesque lines.
Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.