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Public no longer tunes in Clinton

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, August 9, 1994

While the president’s people complain that his accomplishments are not appreciated by the American people, there may be something larger that explains Clinton’s problems with Congress and the American people, where his approval rating, now around 40%, continues to sink Clinton’s problem: tune-out.

Consider George Romney, a respected auto industry magnate, a successful Republican governor of Michigan and a 1968 presidential aspirant. People tuned out George Romney after he changed his position on the Vietnam War, claiming he had been “brainwashed” by the military on a trip to Vietnam. Consider Ted Kennedy. His questionable conduct around the tragic drowning death of Mary Jo Kopeche at the Chappaquiddick bridge in 1969 damaged but did not destroy his chances for the presidency. Rather, as a 1980 presidential front-runner, Kennedy was unable, in a much-watched TV interview with Roger Mudd, to answer a simple question: “Why do you want to be president, Mr. Kennedy.” After his feeble, stammering response, the public tuned him out.

Consider George Bush. After 80% approval ratings in the wake of his victory in Desert Storm, Bush began to sink in the polls. He never recovered. Reason: A series of events gave voters the feeling that George Bush was disconnected from their lives, that he didn’t care about the problems of middle America, that he wasn’t engaged in his job.

An important event in the Bush tune-out was an early 1992 campaign incident in a supermarket checkout line where a giddy President Bush was seemingly caught by TV cameras “discovering” the bar code reader. That was a turning point for a lot of people. They concluded George Bush was out of touch with day-to-day life in America. They tuned out.

In my view, the same thing has happened to Bill Clinton. Many Americans have tuned out. People don’t believe him, so they don’t care what he says. I have policy wonk friends, both Democrats and Republicans, people who are C-SPAN junkies — who didn’t miss a minute of the Iran-contra hearings or the Whitewater hearings — who no longer watch Clinton news conferences. They don’t care what he says because they feel what he says doesn’t mean anything.

It’s hard to say when the Clinton tune-out happened. Like the Bush tune-out, it seems to have been the result of a cascading series of events: “I didn’t inhale.” Sidestepping infidelity and harassment charges by Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones. Dissembling about Whitewater. Bad judgment from travelgate to Vince Foster. Reversing his field, ideologically, following his election. Hypocrisy about the greed decade, when the Clintons made a lot of money. Abandoning Democratic House members after they cast tough votes. Inept foreign policy from Bosnia to Haiti. The list goes on.

However it happened, a large number of people have simply tuned out on the president. Presidents can recover from blunders — e.g., Eisenhower and the U-2 spy plane downing, Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Reagan and Iran contra. But a president probably can’t recover from having been tuned out.

That’s the president’s predicament today — and that’s why he’s exerting such a strong undertow on Democratic candidates in November, so strong that even the president’s own pollster is advising Democratic candidates to distance themselves from him.

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