The Amoral Majority?

I first noticed something was wrong while watching one of those preprogrammed talk shows where each guest plays a designated role. Ann Coulter, the new Xena of the right-wing crusade, was debating Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. By the logic of the casting, Ireland was supposed to be on the defensive, mealy-mouthed and contrite, stumbling over garbled explanations of why feminists continue to support our lecherous president. Coulter was supposed to be smug and triumphant, eyeing with magnanimous pity her opponent squirming in her swivel chair.

Instead, something very different happened. Coulter huffed and puffed and whipped herself into a Teutonic rage, her fury at some points overcoming her syntax. Stranger still, her anger was directed not at Patricia Ireland or even the president but instead at that willful, bullheaded beast that was once known fondly by conservatives as “the American people.”

“I think it’s a staggering Orwellian spectacle,” she sputtered. “It is just like in 1984 where, you know, Winston Smith is harangued into saying two plus two equals five. That is what the American people are … willing to say. We’ll engage in this ritualized public lying. We think he had sex with Monica Lewinsky. He came on TV… . He lied to us. We don’t care. Our mutual funds are doing well.”

One month into a scandal that threatens to wreck a Democratic presidency, and it’s conservatives who are squirming. Because while the Democrats may lose a leader, conservatives have already lost the very core of their legitimacy: their power to channel the thoughts of the American people. Since Nixon and Reagan invented the “silent majority,” conservatives have invoked their special right to speak for the American people like a talisman, a portable magic that conferred on its owners truth and goodwill: The American people are repulsed by late-term abortion, repelled by gays in the military, fed up with taxes. Conservatives held the reins of the silent majority and rode it into power. Well, now the unpredictable beast refuses to budge, and conservatives are left stranded.

When that first set of numbing polls emerged showing the president still enjoying a 68 percent approval rating, most talk-show bookers did what seemed like the sensible thing: They called up William Bennett, America’s moral arbiter, to translate the yelps of the beast. But the talk shows missed the point. What those numbers showed was that the jig is up; Bill Bennett no longer knows what he’s talking about. Still, he came – but he knew he was faking it.

Before the polls were widely known, the beefy theocrat aired out his usual sermons: “There’s something called the trust of the American people, and whether the president has the trust of the American people, whether he can retain the trust of the American people …” Pretty soon the truth became glaringly obvious: The president had and was retaining their trust. At that point, Bennett got mad. “People say, ‘So what, a 21-year-old intern, a 50-year-old commander-in-chief – as long as things are going well for me, it’s not a problem,’” he fumed at a conservative conference. “This is the Dick Morrisization of the country.”

A few days later, he got even madder, accusing the beast of making a “deal with the devil… . it’s a lesson in corruption,” he ranted. By last week, he had lost his bearings entirely. “I’m part of this vast – maybe not so vast – Judeo-Christian conspiracy,” he said, wobbling. When asked again by Sam Donaldson to channel the nation’s mood, he was uncharacteristically blocked: “American people attach special significance …” he began, then trailed off into glum silence.

Throughout the week, there were desperate attempts to explain away the polls. Maybe the people who supported Clinton were not the same ones who believed he had sex with Monica. Maybe the people were waiting to hear all the facts. But by last week, as new and improved polls were published, it became hard to hold out any hope. One Wall Street Journal poll gave the president an astounding 79 percent approval rating. The number of people who felt positively about Clinton as a person, which had plummeted after the scandal, rebounded again, to 57 percent. And the new polls solved the puzzle of who knows what. About 60 percent of people said they believed all the facts were known, and they still wanted to drop the whole affair.

Values guru Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, finally grew disgusted by the whole notion of polls. “You don’t govern a great nation by polls,” he said. “You don’t sit around and put your finger up in the air.” Unless, of course, the wind is blowing in Bauer’s direction. Anyone with a fax bin will recognize the comedy of Bauer’s helpless cry. The Washington preacher usually considers poll numbers only slightly less reliable than the word of God: POLL DATA SHOW MAJORITY ARE TROUBLED BY ABORTION, blares one of dozens of number-crunching press releases on the group’s Website.

Whatever odd phenomenon is driving these poll numbers can’t easily be dismissed with a bit of poll-bashing. And it’s not just the high performance of mutual funds. On one level, it’s very simple. Understanding Monicagate is not like understanding Whitewater. This is the stuff that happens when your friend’s boyfriend or your neighbor’s husband is having an affair; it doesn’t take a lawyer to figure out where the lipstick-smeared tissues come from. If Americans have opted for insouciance, it’s a willful act of delusion. They know what took place, and they choose to rationalize it away.

Or worse, they think the president was brave to lie. Whatever voodoo powers Clinton has that cause Susan McDougal to serve time in jail and Vernon Jordan to lie and Bruce Lindsey to hold his tongue, the president also seems to have over everyone else. People treat him like a celebrity, and the one thing celebrities are permitted, if not expected, to do is sleep around.

I’ve heard one more generous explanation for the polls, and it may be the worst news yet for conservative moralists like Bennett. Alan Wolfe, a sociologist at Boston University, has spent the past year interviewing Americans about their personal sense of morality for his upcoming book One Nation, After All. The pop-culture cliché, beloved by people like Bauer and Bennett and spread by books and movies like The Ice Storm, is that Americans insist “that everyone conform to a stern moral code yet personally violate that code in drunken revelry, marital infidelity,” writes Wolfe. But what he discovered in his research is that the opposite is true: Middle-class Americans are strict with themselves but refuse to judge others.

So conservatives are half right. Americans are not heathens, but they will not play God, either, which explains why only 22 percent of people polled by the Wall Street Journal think Ken Starr is conducting a fair and impartial investigation. What bothers them more than Winston Smith’s lying in 1984 is the agents who break into his room while he’s having sex with his girlfriend. This ecumenical spirit bodes ill for the future of political sex scandals and, more important, for the future of a conservative crusade. The politics of sin needs an enemy, and now it seems everyone wants to turn the other cheek.

The people’s betrayal affects more than just the moralists like Bennett. It affects the whole Republican Party, which has long been fueled by the energy of its fervent populists. Most TV analysts have been assuming that Republicans have been observing a dignified silence about the scandal, either out of respect for the president or out of political calculation. Either way, the Republicans are in control. But now it seems the silence is more a panicked paralysis, a chill brought on by those relentlessly soaring poll numbers.

Until now, I was sure Ken Starr’s evidence would wind up in an impeachment proceeding. But the only firm resolve to nail the president seems to come from Pat Moynihan. It must be galling for Republicans to wake up and see their chances of capitalizing on the largest political scandal of the past twenty years slip away a little more every day. But what can they do – no Republican seems to be able to stomach the thought of taking down such a popular president, especially months before an election. Henry Hyde, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who has the authority to consider impeachment, alternates between jokes and skittish legalese. He says he needs “precise evidence” of a “substantial nature.” The normally scandal-giddy Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, signaled to Starr in a closed-door meeting of House leaders that the evidence would have to be iron-fortified before he would even consider seeing it. That leaves only Bob Barr, the Clinton-obsessed Republican from Georgia who grows madder with each frustrating day. Those audiotapes, if we ever get to hear them, won’t be nearly enough to nail the president. “At this point,” says one Gingrich aide, “we’ll have to see videos of Bill and Monica in action before we begin this thing.”

The Amoral Majority?